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.