Picture the scene: a stage and three podiums at which three contestants line up to face a studio audience. A charismatic host materializes from backstage and asks the guests to share the typical autobiographical facts: first name, college, outstanding student-loan burden. The crowd greets each precise figure (“$8,480 in debt … $12,583 in debt … $28,587 in debt”) with an ohhh pitched halfway between sadness and shock. Then, the three contenders face off over several rounds of trivia, until one of them wins the right to pay down the balance.
Ladies and gentlemen: It’s debt relief, the game show.
This is not a joke. Nor is it a Black Mirror episode. It’s Paid Off, a new program on the channel TruTV. And at a time when politics and television have become hopelessly entangled, here is television that feels like a highly concentrated, mildly nauseating encapsulation of the zeitgeist.
“It’s a show that shouldn’t exist,” the host, Michael Torpey, told me over the phone. “When people see this as the best avenue for paying off their debt, it’s crazy.”
The show’s conceit comes from Torpey, an actor who has appeared in several films and the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. After graduating from Colgate University debt-free, Torpey met his wife, who owed more than $40,000 in student loans for degrees at Barnard College and New York University. He booked an ad for Hanes, then used the cash to wipe out her loan balance. “The reason I was able to pay off my wife’s debt was because of an underpants commercial,” he said. “The whole thing just felt ridiculous.”
Mounting a game show with winners and losers to highlight the inequities of education economics is “a weird space,” Torpey said. And he milks the weirdness for all its worth. In the season’s second episode, the runner-up says goodbye to the audience by putting a green oven mitt on his right hand and following instructions to flick off Congress. The young man obliges and holds up the mitt. “You know what he’s doing under there!” Torpey says, as the audience laughs and applauds. “You know what he’s doing!”
In the past decade, total student loans have more than doubled from about $600 billion to nearly $1.4 trillion. It is a uniquely American problem. In several European countries—including Germany, Finland, and Norway—public institutions offer free tuition. In Canada and Japan, the annual cost of a year’s education at a public college or university is at least 50 percent less than in the United States. In the worst cases, poorly regulated for-profit institutions hoovered up student loans in exchange for an “education” that empirically offered no average benefit to students. But even in the best cases—college is, historically and overall, a profitable investment—student debt is rising faster than graduate wages.
But national attention to the issue has been inconsistent. Torpey acknowledged that the show stands on the shoulders of the Occupy movement, which yelled, marched, and camped under banners of startling statistics about student debt. In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders made “free college” a core part of his campaign platform. But Donald Trump’s scandals, and a steadily improving economy, have more recently diverted attention from the issue.
The show craftily skewers the system that lured its contestants into debt, intermixing questions about Beyoncé and condoms with earnest facts about the moral blight of for-profit colleges. But despite its good intentions, Paid Off accidentally provides a glitzy simulation of the labor market. Onstage and off, individuals use their knowledge and skills to compete for income against their peers, and the winnings are fundamentally scarce, if not zero-sum.
The program implicitly punishes people with lower debt burdens. On Paid Off, the contestants carry debt ranging from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. In the final round, winners can receive a check equal to their total debt burden. This means that a contestant fresh out of law school with $40,000 in debt can earn an order of magnitude more from the show than a community-college graduate with just $4,000 in debt.
In fact, that’s just how the economy works. Borrowers with more than $40,000 default account for just 4 percent of those in default, in part because they’ve often accumulated that debt through graduate programs that deliver a reasonably high level of income. But borrowers with less than $5,000 in debt default are far more likely to default, because they’ve often attended a less-prestigious school or dropped out of college entirely, accumulating debt without increasing their earning potential.
These might be pedantic criticisms. It’s a television show, after all, not the theatrical rendition of a Brookings white paper to resolve the politics of student debt. But in 2018 America, TV entertainment is politics by other means. The president is a ratings hound who considers the gravest responsibilities of his office to be irresistible opportunities to monopolize the nation’s prime-time attention. Meanwhile, outrage seeps through the pores of talk-show hosts, and award-show emcees, and sketch shows, and stand-up comics, not to mention the most explicitly political performances on cable news.
By the end of the show, as I watched one contestant walk away with what was essentially a Turner Broadcasting grant to offset the long-term decline in state spending on public colleges and universities, I felt transported to a disconcertingly plausible dystopia. It’s a social-media welfare state, where right-wing antagonism toward subsidizing education and health care had merged with the left’s enduring dominion in entertainment to produce a kind of game show–lottery shadow government, in which the middle and lower classes apply to television programs to compete for precisely the sort of welfare that is, in almost every other developed country, provided by the state. After all, why stop at shows that redistribute cable-television dollars to student debtors? Every year, about 600,000 people declare medical bankruptcy. Fifteen million children live in families with incomes below the poverty line. In 2017, NBCUniversal, Fox, Disney, and Time Warner spent a combined $25 billion on linear television entertainment; let’s get those dollars flowing further down the income ladder. TV programming as crypto-means-testing, why not!
Paid Off is mordantly humorous television entertainment that serves as a queasy reminder that America’s leaders have saddled the younger generation with the weight of education debt combined with curiously slow-growing wages and berserk politics. That’s not bad reality television. But doesn’t reality-reality offer enough of that sort of thing, already?