Though it’s a robust presence on the airwaves today, and has been since the 1990s, reality television can actually trace its origins back much farther than that. The cultural appetite for judging others and feeling worthy by comparison was strong a century ago in Victorian England, where “slum tours” offered the well-off the chance to see how the other, considerably poorer half lived. Philanthropists and curious members of the upper classes eagerly paid for the opportunity to gawk at London's worst neighborhoods, and the tours were especially thrilling thanks to the unspoken notion that money and morality were inextricably tied: The wealthy had earned their riches, and the poor had earned their rags. But this idea also led some activists in Victorian society to seek out the “virtuous poor”—the impoverished who were so inherently good that even the wealthy could admit they deserved better.
Last month, CBS premiered the reality show The Briefcase. On the show, families in need are told they’re appearing in a “documentary about money,” handed a briefcase containing $101,000, and then asked how much they’d like to give to another struggling family. The twist? They don’t know that the people they’re evaluating have also received a briefcase of money and are judging how much they deserve to get. Each family gets the chance to wander through the other’s home, looking for signs of worthiness (artificial limbs resting against the wall, medical bills left out on a counter). And after an hour of viewers waiting to see how much money desperate people are honorable enough to hand over, there’s a meeting between the two families to rationalize, exchange money, and offer catharsis. It’s an O. Henry-esque short story of staged goodwill, and it’s as close to a Victorian slum tour as reality TV can get without a time machine.
The Briefcase is ostensibly about generosity in tough circumstances—a contestant from Wednesday’s episode opined that people should “show each other that if you’re falling down, we’re going to be here to pick you up.” But its structure encourages more judgment than empathy from its viewers. Each episode positions viewers to carry out their own assessment of the families on screen—how truly needy they are, and how authentic and generous they’ll prove to be. Vulture has pointed out the absurdity of how the contestants’ financial suffering compares to CBS CEO Les Moonves’s astronomical income, and The New Republic has declared The Briefcase to be part of a long tradition of “misery TV” that dates back to Queen for a Day, a reality-based show that debuted in 1945.
But The Briefcase’s cynicism runs deeper than its predecessors. It’s tapped into the 19th-century idea of moral worth as currency to be traded—the needy must prove they are the “virtuous poor” and worthy of better circumstances. This concept was perhaps most memorably depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens, where religious, humble, well-spoken, and grateful paupers won the sympathies of the wealthy. The upper classes reasoned to themselves that the invisible hand of Providence would act to reward the good—a belief that at once fit with the notion that the poor deserved their lot in life while reaffirming their own moral and class standing.
It’s a concept born of the Victorians but infinitely renewable today. Ours is a time of perhaps even greater wealth inequality than the 19th century. NPR notes that the “85 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 percent of humanity,” while a 40-hour week at minimum wage isn’t enough to pay rent anywhere in the U.S. In this context, it makes sense that Victorian-level economic disparities have given birth to something with unintentionally 19th-century values like The Briefcase. The show seems to reassure viewers that the needy participants depicted on screen can raise themselves up, with their own humility, generosity, and tenacity. But this attitude redirects focus away from underlying problems. Some families that appear on The Briefcase are struggling because of holes in the social safety net—one family lacks health insurance, another lacks veteran support. The real solutions to those problems are more complicated and less TV-friendly than a briefcase full of money and the suggestion to play nice.
The entertainment value in The Briefcase lies, of course, in seeing goodness and altruism in people who might be reasonably expected to be selfish out of necessity. A needy family that’s humble and self-denying offers more comfort to onlookers than one that’s angry or desperate; a family that’s suitably grateful for humane treatment makes the onlooker feel like a better person. The Victorians were well aware of this particular benefit. The philanthropist and social reformer Beatrice Webb, Lady Passfield wrote in 1883:
[I]t is distinctly advantageous to us to go amongst the poor. We can get from them an experience of life which is novel and interesting ... contact with them develops on the whole our finer qualities, disgusting us with our false and worldly application of men and things and educating in us a thoughtful benevolence.
In order to reconstruct the virtuous poor for its audience, The Briefcase uses familiar storytelling techniques to build a narrative that encourages this moral stratification. The literary scholar Raymond Chapman notes in his 1994 book, Forms of Speech in Victorian Fiction, that in novels, the virtuous poor were often spared the transcribed drawl of the underclass, such as wide vowels and dropped h’s. Instead, writers honored them with “the giving of standard speech to virtuous but uneducated characters”—effectively a sympathetic edit meant to confer a certain nobility, and promote the character to personhood in the mind of the audience. On The Briefcase, this elevation occurs in a moment where a contestant vomits from the guilt of ever having wanted to keep money for herself. The audience is meant to see this epiphany as her noble elevation: The thought of not sharing her newfound wealth literally made her sick.
Edits like this are nothing new, nor is television that profits from the lamentable situations of others. Following the success of the Channel 5 poverty-porn series Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, the BBC announced plans for a competitive reality show called The Hardest Grafter, which will allow low-income workers to “prove themselves” for an eventual cash prize of £15,000 (roughly $23,000). Despite subsequent outcry, the network has so far doubled down on its decision, claiming the series’s morals are in the right place by offering a venue to demonstrate how hard the poor work for their betterment.
This well-intentioned sentiment that people can “dis-pauperise” themselves recalls the Victorian workhouse, which offered a tidier version of the slum tour. The poor would live and perform menial tasks at a workhouse in exchange for minimal food and schooling, and visits from preachers and activists who’d stop by to judge the gratitude and virtue of the inhabitants. Shows like The Briefcase similarly demand this kind of performative morality from their contestants, whose hard work is only as good as they can convince the camera it is.
As such, reality TV exists in a delicate ecosystem: Audiences understand that a degree of illusion is necessary to build a story, but they expect enough verisimilitude in order to pass moral judgments. All it takes to throw a wrench in the audience’s perception of a “winner” is an obvious case of producer interference or a real-life disgrace. A current, deeply uncomfortable example is the Duggar family’s sex-abuse scandal. TLC has long positioned the Duggars somewhere between quirky sitcom and carnival sideshow (another Victorian mainstay that’s become reality-TV bedrock), but their TV-friendly, performative modesty has been shattered. The Briefcase will likely be free from such unanimous scrutiny for a little while longer; its audience (currently 5 million strong) is too aware of how reality TV works to feel manipulated by its carefully constructed charity, and not outraged enough to care about being sold a slum tour under the guise of tenderheartedness.
Still, the influence of reality TV that provokes moral condemnation is too strong to ignore, even if it’s nothing new. In an 1891 essay on socialism, the writer Oscar Wilde wrote that “a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious, is probably a real personality, and has much in him ... As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them.” Words a reality-show casting agent could live by.