'The Briefcase': Cynical, Condescending Help for the Needy


One of the more cynical and repulsive of new reality shows — and that’s saying something, I know — The Briefcase is all the more reprehensible for passing off its exploitation of people in beleaguered financial straits as uplifting, inspirational TV.

Wednesday night’s premiere gave us two married couples, both in debt and struggling to support their families. Joe and Kim Bergin, in North Carolina, have an ice cream truck business; the trucks looked like broken-down wrecks. Dave and Cara Bronson, in New Hampshire, want to build a wheelchair-accessible home: Dave lost a leg in the Iraq war — he’s a Purple Heart recipient; Kara is a nurse.

Then out came the briefcase. Delivered by what we’re told were executive producers of the show, info I can only assume falls under the category of Know Your Enemy, the briefcase contained $101,000 in cash. One briefcase was given to each couple, in their respective homes in North Carolina and New Hampshire, simultaneously.

Once opened and shocked reaction shots duly noted by the cameras, each couple was told by a producer that they could keep all the money, or keep part of the money, or give all the money to the other couple “that may be in as much or more need than you are.” The surprise/hitch: Neither family knows that the other has received a briefcase. Thus, each couple makes its agonized decision believing that if it doesn’t give any dough to the other, that couple would wind up with nothing.

The entire enterprise was excruciating. After a quick happy scene in which both couples were told by the producers to spend $1,000 each just having some fun, the rest of the money caused friction between spouses (one would chide the other for being either too generous or too parsimonious).

Then the show twisted the knife in their guts even further. Each couple was taken to the other’s home. Wandering through rooms, noting details (gee, their washing machine doesn’t work; OMG, he’s got an artificial leg!), the guilt became overwhelming — for the couples and the viewers. The couples kept changing their minds about what other people “deserved”; we kept changing our minds about whether there had to be something less infuriating or depressing on another channel.

Consider some details The Briefcase probably doesn’t want you to think about too hard. These are people classified as “middle-class,” yet they are drowning in debt, barely able to make ends meet. The Bergin family — which includes three young daughters — hasn’t been able to afford health care for two years. This show, presented as entertainment, featured people looking at each other in agony saying things like, “Are we awful people?” and “You don’t feel guilty?” and “He lost [his leg] fighting for us; that puts my life to shame.”

Related: ‘The Briefcase’ Offers Families Cash and a Big Decision

Like another CBS reality series, Undercover Boss, in which people fear for their jobs and fat-cat employers are lionized as heroes for simply agreeing to increase their employees’ wages to minimal living standards, The Briefcase presents itself as an opportunity for its — what do we call them? Contestants? Victims? — to possess a large sum of money, but only after they expose their moral calculus to the cameras.

The final scene showed the two couples brought together and the gimmick — you both have briefcases! — revealed. But by this time, each couple was required to have made their decision about how much money to give the other in ignorance of that.

In the premiere, both couples decided to give all their dough to the other, so financially, both made out just fine. That is, after everyone involved was sullied by this cruel little game.

But I assume the financial results won’t go this way every week. So when, in the future, one couple decides to keep all the money, and the other couple decides to give its counterpart, oh, say, $30,000, is there going to be criticism — by the other couple; by viewers — of the folks who chose to walk away with $70,000? Just how much more strain does the show want to elicit from already-pained people? Will couples wait until the cameras are turned off and have bitter fights over an artificial situation that nevertheless would have been of immense help?

Honestly, The Briefcase left me appalled and disgusted.

The Briefcase airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.