CBS’s ‘The Briefcase’ Is About Heart, Not Economics

the briefcase

There are four winning scenarios in The Briefcase, the new CBS reality series that gives struggling families a briefcase with $101,000 in cash and asks them to determine how much to keep and how much to give to another struggling family.

Winning Scenario 1: Both families elect to keep the entire $101,000, and both families end up with $101,000.

Winning Scenario 2: Both families elect to give away the entire $101,000, and both families end up with $101,000.

Winning Scenario 3: Both families elect to give away $50,500, and both families end up with $101,000.

(There are other Winning Scenario 3 variations that result in both families keeping $101,000, such as if each family unilaterally decides to tithe. Essentially, Winning Scenario 3 is “each family gives the same amount to the other family.”)

The fourth winning scenario is a bit more complicated. See, the gimmick behind The Briefcase is that, as Family A decides how much to keep for themselves and how much to give to Family B, they are unaware that Family B is making the same keep/give decision about them. Then, after they make their decisions, both families are flown to Los Angeles to confront each other and their respective generosities.

Which makes the fourth winning scenario the moment where both families mutually agree, after the Big Reveal, to revoke their previous decisions and split the money evenly. Everyone ends up with $101,000.

It’s a moment that I very much hope happens during The Briefcase, which premieres tonight. In fact, when The Briefcase‘s PR team reached out to The Billfold in the hopes that we’d write about the show, one of the first questions I asked executive producer Dave Broome (formerly of The Biggest Loser) was whether they specifically screened for people who weren’t familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

“It’s a documentary series. It’s not a competition show,” Broome told me, cutting off the discussion of my winning scenarios. “It’s not a game show. In fact, when you watch the episodes, you better sit there with a box of tissues. It’s an emotional, compelling, raw, real, inspirational journey.”

I suspect The Briefcase would be equally well served with a box of Franzia wine and some drinking game rules. Here’s the trailer, so you can see for yourself:

Drink every time the families get a text with another piece of heartbreaking information about someone else’s hardships. Drink every time someone changes their mind about how much to keep/give. Drink every time someone cries.

No. Wait. Drink every time someone cries? There are plenty of other pop culture sites writing about how The Briefcase is exploitative both of its audience and the families involved, and I’ll be the first to say that, from what I’ve seen of the show so far (as well as some of the inside scoop I got from talking to Dave Broome), The Briefcase is designed to force out as many strong emotional responses as possible. The moment in the trailer where a woman says “I hate you!” to her husband, for example; that’s because the show deliberately isolates family members and prompts them to make decisions that their partners might not agree with.

But drinking every time someone cries, or yells, or engages in typical reality-show behavior (what’s the over/under on “I’m not here to make friends”) is equally as crass as, say, the idea of publicly judging people’s generosity. These are real people, and CBS put me in touch with one of the families participating in the show, Joe and Kim Bergin.

“You have to go with your heart, because your heart goes with you everywhere, regardless of money,” Kim Bergin told me. I would never make it on The Briefcase, because my response would be something like “okay, let’s look at the different tax brackets involved here and figure out how to maximize our take-home pay while still giving something to the other family.” (Don’t believe me? Over the weekend I did the math on my potential move from Seattle to Portland, and realized I’d lose money, despite the lower cost of living, due to Portland’s 9 percent state income tax.)

But it turns out that The Briefcase did the math too. You might have noticed, in the trailer, that one of the families is $490,000 in debt; $101,000 after taxes is only going to make a small dent in that burden. Likewise, if you aren’t bringing in enough money to support your family, $101,000 may help with your bills but won’t be a long-term solution. When I asked Dave Broome about that aspect of The Briefcase, he agreed with me:

“The $100,000 was a specific number that I wanted because it’s not enough to affect anyone’s life in a way that you’d say that’s it, I’m quitting my job, pack it up baby, we’re traveling around the world. That money can’t do that. In many cases, that money can’t pay off your mortgage. It can’t get you fully out of debt. It’s not going to pay for your kids’ college education, totally. It’s enough cash to affect your life and possibly affect someone else’s life.”

Which makes The Briefcase, ultimately, about the decision. About what your heart tells you to do, as much as I want to simultaneously slug a gulp of Franzia because I said the word “heart.” But even I have made those kinds of heart-based decisions; I’m in debt, but I’ve chosen to give money to GoFundMes, disaster funds, and charities instead of putting the cash towards my own debt burden. That kind of generosity is what prompted Broome to create The Briefcase; he specifically told me about seeing people donate to Nepal earthquake victims even though he knew they had debt and financial struggles of their own.

One final point, before you decide whether or not to watch The Briefcase: a lot of other sites are describing these families as “poor.” They are, in the sense that their debts outweigh their assets, but they’re also technically middle class, and that’s an important distinction. As Broome explained:

“We wanted truly middle class families. Every episode is built around the middle class. Defining the middle class is an interesting proposition in itself, but our families earn, on average, at least what the middle class definition typically is. $50,000 per household. I have a family in Boston that makes $140,000.”

In other words: today’s middle class families are struggling. They might have $490,000 in debt. They aren’t earning enough to pay the bills, even when they earn $140,000 a year. And $101,000 isn’t going to significantly affect their lives, not in the long-term.

I’m still hoping for that winning scenario, though. Still hoping for that moment where the two families meet and agree to share everything equally.

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