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“The Briefcase” Reality Show Pits Poor Families Against Each Other

A New TV show from the creator of The Biggest Loser will pit low-income families against each other for a briefcase full of cash in a “test of the human spirit”.

The Briefcase, an upcoming reality show on US network CBS, has attracted early criticism for its premise given rising income inequality and financial hardship.

In each episode, a struggling family is given a briefcase containing $US101,000 ($A129,000). The family must choose whether to keep the money, or give some, or all of it, to another family.

“We’re testing the human spirit,” executive producer Dave Broome told Entertainment Weekly. “These days, with paychecks shrinking, we wanted to tackle human values in a big and loud way.”

To influence their decisions, each family gradually learns details about the other — for example, a “right wing, Texas Christian conservative, God-loving, gun-toting” family gradually learns that the other family is a married lesbian couple.

“It’s like, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just won the lottery, but here’s a mirror that comes with it,’” Broome told EW. “Ultimately it has nothing to do with the money. It has everything to do with who they are.”

In a twist at the end of each episode, it is revealed that there were two briefcases all along, and each family’s decision is revealed to the other.

As EW points out, it’s essentially a variation on game theory problem of the prisoner’s dilemma — similar to shows like the UK’s Golden Balls.

But commentators in the US have variously described it as a “s**tshow of bad taste, manipulation and voyeurism”, “stereotype baiting”, and “some kind of weird, unnecessary social experiment”.

Others have pointed out that while it is manipulative, it might succeed in raising awareness of poverty. “As someone who grew up in a trailer with a single mum who made $12,000 a year raising four kids alone, I kind of can’t wait to watch it anyway,” wrote Jezebel’s Tracy Moore.

“Why? Because even though there’s nothing grosser than the setup described above, there’s something even more disturbing about how people won’t really talk about poverty.

“Even the worst version of The Briefcase will rely on making poverty sympathetic, something we’re in short supply of in the mainstream consciousness. And sometimes you take what you can get, even when it’s delivered in the most hideous of packages.”

In Australia, public broadcaster SBS says it will go ahead with its controversial new series Struggle Street, which follows everyday Australians living in disadvantaged areas including Sydney’s Mt Druitt, despite copping criticism.

Blacktown City Mayor Stephen Bali has described the show as “publicly funded poverty porn”, and has set up a Change.org petition calling on SBS to suspend the broadcast until participants can view the show.

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