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CBS’ ‘The Briefcase’ Plumbs New Depths

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CBS’ ‘The Briefcase’ Plumbs New Depths


Recently, I watched the first episode of The Briefcase, CBS’ new “reality” show. I found myself vaguely ashamed for doing so. I kept reminding myself that I had to watch it in order to write about it.

Myself wasn’t buying it. Myself wanted a shower.

It will probably not shock you to learn that your humble correspondent has no love for so-called reality television. Somehow, on the road from Candid Camera to An American Family to various real housewives of various real American cities, the once novel and seemingly harmless idea of focusing television cameras on the lives of ordinary people curdled into a species of “entertainment” so invasive that the camera might as well be a proctological device.

In that sense, you could argue there is nothing new, nor even particularly noteworthy, about The Briefcase, a summer series that premiered last week. Its premise is that a struggling family is given a briefcase full of cash — $101,000 — with the stipulation that they may choose to keep all of the money, keep some and give the rest to a second down-on-its luck family, or keep none of it and give the entire fortune to that other family.

It is a rigged morality tale, a financially strapped couple wrestling with questions of self-preservation versus altruism. In that situation, should you be selfish or selfless? At one point, each couple is taken to tour the other couple’s home while those people are away. They rifle through the other family’s overdue bills, inspect their busted appliances. The twist is that unbeknownst to each couple, the other has received an identical briefcase, has taken the same tour, and is wrestling with the same question: What is the moral thing to do?

Actually, if anyone really cared about these families’ problems, the moral course would be obvious. Let CBS (estimated value, according to Forbes, approximately $30 billion) give each struggling family what it needs to get back on its feet. Problem is, the moral course would not be the most entertaining course, would deprive the rest of us of watching these men and women argue, weep, shoot death glares at one another, confess intimate fears to the camera and, yes, vomit in emotional distress, as they try to make this inherently unfair decision.

Look, it is not exactly news that “reality television” is a cesspool. For those who enjoy it, that’s apparently part of the attraction.

But The Briefcase plumbs new depths. CBS has made a calculated bet here that you and I would not mind seeing real-life poverty as mass entertainment. So far, they’re right. According to Variety, The Briefcase was the most watched Wednesday-night series on television last week. Almost 7 million of us tuned in to find diversion in the exploitation of financially and emotionally vulnerable people.

It is particularly, well … rich that this comes from CBS. In 2002, you may recall, that network proposed to take a poor and unsophisticated rural family and plunk them down in a Beverly Hills mansion for America’s amusement. There was an outcry and CBS was shamed out of airing The Real Beverly Hillbillies. But apparently, that was a Pyrrhic victory. Thirteen years later, here comes The Briefcase. Thirteen years later, in a country where “the poors” are called “takers,” “moochers” and scavenging animals, that same network now uses them to fill the space between commercials for soft drinks and erectile-dysfunction pills.

There is something blinkered about the morality that makes such a thing not simply possible, but popular. There are 45 million Americans submerged below the poverty line. That’s 1 in every 7 of us, many living one medical diagnosis, one broken transmission, one missed paycheck, from disaster. Friends, that is tragedy, not entertainment.

And pity any nation that can no longer tell the difference.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.) 

Screenshot: CBS/YouTube

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Daniel Kalban June 3, 2015

    This show is disgusting and should be cancelled in the name of good taste!

  2. marriea June 3, 2015

    I too have no love for ‘reality’ TV. And to think, they cancelled shows like Battle Creek and Stalker for this.
    But on the flip side, it would be interesting to know how much exactly is (are) networks actually are paying people to appear on these programmes. I’ve heard it’s a net sum of about $50,000. After taxes, perhaps these folks will end up with about $35,000 and life-long bragging rights about their proverbial 15 mins of fame. To show the world what one is will to do for $35,000?…. I guess.

  3. Justin Napolitano June 3, 2015

    Yes, watching people struggle is entertaining for the rich, and those that think they accomplished something in life all on their own; that they are givers and everyone else is a taker. It is great TV to watch people trying to make a moral decision with a windfall while they are themselves are really hurting.
    Now if they were Republicans they would take the money, invest it and if successful tell everyone else that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps just like they did.
    And if they failed then they could blame the takers and that they pay way too much in taxes and that is why they failed.

  4. mikes2653 June 3, 2015

    The article states, “There are 45 million Americans submerged below the poverty line. That’s 1 in every 7 of us, many living one medical diagnosis, one broken transmission, one missed paycheck, from disaster.”

    How many of them are there because of bad luck, and how many because of their own behavior (stupidity, laziness, vice – drug abuse, begetting illegitimate children, petty crime)? A so-called “reality” show does not show us the causes. The premise of giving poor people money is really no different from what the welfare state does. Yet the real problem besetting most of the underclass is not merely that they lack money, but that they somehow fail to manage their lives well.

    1. 788eddie June 3, 2015

      I just love your empathy, Mike.

      1. mikes2653 June 3, 2015

        How do you propose to help the people I have described? Give them more money to piss away on their drug habits? Indulge them in their crime and self-destructive behavior?

        There are, to be sure, people who are poor because of simple bad luck. But lots of them make their circumstances bad by their own poor choices, or perhaps lack the native intelligence to make good choices. Isn’t it odd how private charities don’t seem to have much problem distinguishing the two classes of people,while the welfare state makes no distinction and has thus bred a vast dependent class? There has to be a better way.

        1. 788eddie June 4, 2015

          Maybe the better way is not to shrink government, as some conservatives would like, but rather invest in a better system to be able to differentiate between those who are really deserving and those who are just slackers. I don’t mind investing tax dollars in a system to make it better. That would be the smarter choice.

          1. mikes2653 June 4, 2015

            Perhaps government isn’t well suited to the task. It hasn’t shown itself capable of making this differentiation in the past, and there isn’t any reason to suppose that higher spending levels would make it capable of so doing. I fear that it would be throwing good money after bad.

            Would any entity – be it a business or a private-sector non-profit – outside government persist so long in following a plan that was failing? As Einstein is supposed to have said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It would be better to scrap the failure that LBJ’s Great Society has been altogether, and try something different.

          2. Justin Napolitano June 6, 2015

            What crap. A society is measured by the way it treats the least of us not by how much wealth some have accumulated.
            Don’t forget that you will reside in the ground along with all of those non achievers you hate
            When you talk about throwing good money after bad, that would apply to giving money to the rich, who don’t need it, more than giving to the poor who do.

          3. mikes2653 June 8, 2015

            You don’t make any response to my points at all, but simply revile me.

            In 1967, three years after Lyndon Johnson initiated the “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate was approximately 14%. In 2014, the poverty rate was still approximately 14%, after the expenditure of something like $22 trillion of the taxpayers’ money since the inception of the Great Society programs.

            I call that a failure, and you have made no convincing rebuttal. You speak instead of “getting rid” of me. That was spoken like a true socialist, in the spirit of Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, or Pol Pot.

            I don’t propose to “give money” to anyone. I propose letting people keep what is theirs. Maybe they can do better with it than the government, which has taken and wasted it.

            Nor do I “hate” non-achievers. I just point out that the welfare state hasn’t helped them improve their condition. That’s because it gives them no incentive to do so. Wasn’t it Johnson who said that the poor should have a hand up, and not a hand out? It hasn’t worked that way, has it?

          4. 788eddie June 8, 2015

            I’ve got a better idea; how about taking what is working (and a lot of support for poorer people in out society is working well), and fixing the problem areas. It’s no good throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

            Fix what needs fixin’ and improve the rest! This ain’t China!

          5. Justin Napolitano June 4, 2015

            They are humans. What is wrong with you?

          6. mikes2653 June 5, 2015

            Yes, they are human, with all the typical human failings – lack of native intelligence, sloth, and vice prime among them. Those who will not chase the carrot of opportunity must feel the stick of necessity. No welfare state has ever overcome those human failings and none ever will. Supporting it may make you feel yourself morally superior to those who do not, but it does not do the larger society any good.

          7. 788eddie June 5, 2015

            I don’t get your comment, Justin. Was it a response to mine? I would appreciate clarification.


        2. Justin Napolitano June 4, 2015

          The first thing to do is get rid of you Mike. I’ll bet you have never met someone that is living in poverty. You state “what would you do with them” as if they are not human and deserve no consideration and should be treated as dogs, or pigs or livestock.
          How does it feel to be a stupid, selfish bastar*.
          I’ll also bet you proclaim to be a Christian. Christ would come off of the cross and smack you in the mouth.

          1. mikes2653 June 5, 2015

            My religion is of no import, though if it really matters to you, I am a deist. If there be a Creator, he abandoned this world to its own devices long ago.

            The welfare state as it’s currently constituted is a failure. It has created dependency. You seem oblivious to this and respond to my points by attacking me personally. That doesn’t invalidate those points. The welfare state is still a failure, and all you can do is demand that the country continue on its failed course.

            If you got rid of me, and people like me, who’d employ the people who want to work, and pay the taxes to support those who don’t? Then your socialistic dreams would be in real trouble, as they always end up when you run out of other people’s money.

    2. dpaano July 31, 2015

      How wrong you are, Mike, but I won’t go into all the reasons why because I don’t have that long of a time. Those who are living in poverty now are mostly due to bad luck; i.e., losing their jobs, unexpected medical bills, etc., Yes, there are a few out there who like to “scam” the government, but I don’t think there are more of them than the former. Also, it’s a little hard to “manage your lives well” when you don’t have a penny to your name and no way to get it. But, I see your lack of compassion is showing! Let’s hope that you never have any “bad luck.”

  5. dpaano July 31, 2015

    I, for one, did not watch it. I like SOME reality shows, but most of them just teach us more about greed, back-biting, lying, etc., that they get old very fast. I certainly wouldn’t let my children watch them….why would I want them to see that being all these things just to win some money is admirable? It’s NOT admirable…it’s downright pitiful! It’s more pitiful for the people involved. Some people are suffering poverty because of circumstances; others because of stupid decisions…..but either way, this show does not help us to learn how to deal with people that are in dire straits! It’s pitiful to watch and pitiful to think that this is considered entertainment!


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