If Reality TV could find a way to turn Sophie’s Choice into an hour of TV entertainment it would probably do it.
Until then we are left with The Briefcase, a show dressed up in blue sky production values and the heart-warming premise: “How generous are you?” But the flipside to that is also “How greedy are you?”
After watching two episodes of this I can only conclude it is morally bankrupt.
Based on a US format from The Biggest Loser creator, Dave Broome, it presents two families who have been selected because they have hit on hard times. In the first episode we meet Jenny 59, and Jim 60, two salt-of-the-earth parents with two teens, whose home was burnt in a Grampians bushfire. They lost home, livestock and are drowning in debt.
The second family includes Mandy 42, and Rod 42, parents of three young kids. But after Mandy contracted a life-threatening bacteria doctors were forced to amputate her arms and legs. Despite such hardship and a life lived with prosthetic arms and legs, her spirit is inspiring.
Into their lives lands The Briefcase, a case plonked on their doorsteps with $100,000. But there is a directive: they can keep all of the money, keep some of it, or give all of it away to another needy family. Elation suddenly turns into conflict and the cameras are there to capture it all. Nobody gets to say “I’ll keep the money, you can turn the cameras off now, thanks.” Not when TV has an hour to fill.
“This is a moral dilemma,” says one family.
“I don’t know if we deserve this more than anybody else,” says the other.
The twist is of course that neither is aware the other also has a $100,000 case.
Watching the show you have to wonder how the families were chosen, and why they agreed to having cameras in their lives in the first place. The reactions of opening the case to $100,000 were a little underwhelming, as if they knew something was coming….
What the show neglects to explain is that they were chosen through producer consultation with local communities and told they were participating in a documentary. This is absent from the storytelling and would be well worth explaining, as it goes to the authenticity of the show.
Across the hour each family is given more detail on the other, and consults with friends on what to decide, before being asked to visit the others’ home in their absence. That will include constant personalising of the others by name, family photos, seeing prosthetic limbs, photos of ravaging fires and even bank statements. The idea that someone is always worse off than you is much harder when their details are so familiar -no wonder our couples are in tears by this point. I feel dirty for watching.
As the three day test ticks closer to its deadline a 15 year old girl tells her parents, “We know you’ll make the right decision.” What a shame they aren’t making an informed one, with the full knowledge that the other family already has $100k -but that would only deny us the opportunity to see just how generous / greedy they really are.
My biggest gripe with the show is that the participants are not given full disclosure because Reality TV wants to turn human behaviour into entertainment. Sure there’s a list as long as your non-prosthetic arm of Reality TV twists -but they are shows in which the participants have willingly signed up. If you agree to a Documentary is it fair to have your emotions exploited by Reality producers keeping you in the dark? The show is not being honest with them. What does it say about us as audience if we’re prepared to watch people’s emotions being manipulated on a deception?
I suppose if you walk away with $100,000 (or potentially twice that) then the ends justify the means. But I worry about whether anybody will be considered less-generous for keeping some of the cash. And hello, it’s also appalling timing screening it when the family of a man behind bars in Lebanon is begging for help to earn his freedom. There’s your reality, outside your own gate.
The only concession I can honestly give this show is that they didn’t stunt cast it as the US version did with dwarves, lesbians, and gun-toting Christians pitted against one another.
Domestic Blitz used to make over backyards to show human spirit and community, Random Acts of Kindness and Secret Millionaire handed out generosity by the bucketload to struggling, ordinary folk. These days everything has to be a “social experiment.”
The Briefcase tries to pass itself off as showing us how much heart true blue Aussies have.
Problem is we want our shows to be true blue too.
The Briefcase airs 7:30pm Monday June 20 on Nine.
NB: Review copy with narration guide-track. Final voice-over yet to be completed.