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Misery TV: Is The Briefcase about generosity or humiliating poor people?

Why journalist Esther Breger calls CBS's The Briefcase the latest in television's long history of humiliating poor people.
Two families meet on CBS's new reality show The Briefcase. (CBS)

A new reality program called The Briefcase debuted on CBS last Wednesday. It was a ratings hit, but also earned a heap of critical scorn for its premise.

Each week, a family in dire financial straits is given a briefcase with $101,000, and faced with an agonizing choice: how much do they keep, and how much will they give to another family in just as bad, if not worse, an economic situation of their own.

What the two families don't know (but the audience does) is that both couples have been given the briefcase and will walk away with the full $101,000 — but not before an hour of agonizing moral duress.

The New Republic's Esther Breger wrote about the subject in an article called "Television's Long History of Humiliating Poor People." She says it's the latest in a genre known as "Misery TV" or "poverty porn."

Breger tells Shad that The Briefcase manipulates viewers into making themselves feel better about their own lives compared to the families showcased on the air, and never addresses the tough questions surrounding their situations.

"It never forces us to ask, well, why doesn't this family have health insurance, even though both parents are working? Why doesn't this wounded veteran — why isn't the government helping him find a place to live that is handicapped-accessible?" (One man featured in the show's first episode has a prosthetic leg.)

In comparison, Breger says that the BBC program Britain's Hardest Grafter, at the very least, doesn't pretend to extol generosity over extracting entertainment from people's poverty. That program pits unemployed contestants in a series of competitions to win a year's working wage, and some have described it as a real-life Hunger Games.

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