(RNS) If a briefcase of money fell in your lap, would you keep it, share it or give it all away?
The new reality show “The Briefcase” is asking that question. But viewers and ethicists are asking more:
How could CBS put this on the air? Are there better ways to address the financial challenges of the middle class?
The hourlong show, which airs its fourth episode Wednesday (June 17), introduces two families each episode with the struggles of bills and not enough money coming in to achieve all their goals — whether dealing with a lost job, medical bills or the potential costs of in vitro fertilization.
“It’s not Monopoly money?” asked Iraq War veteran Dave Bronson in the first episode when he and his speechless pregnant wife opened the briefcase filled with neatly wrapped bills.
All the families are told to spend $1,000 as they like. But over the course of 72 hours, the families discover they aren’t just suddenly relishing how they’d spend the remaining $100,000 on themselves.
They learn about the challenges facing another family — who secretly also has received $101,000. Gradually, the show’s producers reveal more and more of the needs of each family so two couples walk a line between need and greed.
It sounds to Christian ethics professor Amy Laura Hall like yet another reality show where families are placed in situations that are simultaneously competitive and awkward.
“I see it as a kind of societal self-cutting as people are watching these shows,” said Hall, who teaches at Duke Divinity School. “It’s pitting people against one another to compare who’s struggling more.”
In the third episode, Becky and Matt Wylie, the wife and husband of a self-described “God-fearing, fun-loving Republican” family from rural Texas, are faced with helping themselves or Leila and Tanya Bailey-Stewart, an interracial lesbian couple from Boston.
Both families are shown praying and speak of their faith influencing their difficult decisions.
In the end, the Wylies, who want to help pay down a daughter’s wedding debt and provide for a relative who lives in a trailer with no bathroom, give $25,000 to the Bailey-Stewarts. The Boston couple, who are raising Leila Bailey-Stewart’s two nephews and hoped for their own child through IVF, gave the Texans $99,600 — keeping $100 for each member of their immediate family.
Other families have made different choices. In the first episode, each family gave the other $100,000. In the second, a family that lived paycheck to paycheck gave $20,000 to a family who had filed for bankruptcy after losing their business and had a special-needs son. The bankrupt couple gave the other struggling family, little people who want to adopt a little person, $40,000.
In an interview before the airing of the show in which he was featured, Matt Wylie said critics are too focused on the money.
“I think that it shows out of 12 couples all over the country, all over this great United States, that here is the humanity,” he said, “that we do care about our fellow man.”
Hall wishes for more of a focus on real-world alternatives to helping struggling families than a reality show version of assistance for the few.
“You have to decide as a family whether you as a family deserve this gift from the network god, and it’s absolutely no solution for the actual predicament people are in financially,” she said.
Theology professor Daniel Scheid likewise was concerned that the show might lead viewers to focus on middle-class struggles rather than the broader economic picture.
“The personal struggles a family may have in deciding what to do with $101,000 are interesting,’’ said Scheid, of Duquesne University. “But I would want to make sure we see the full context for this, including the widening gap between rich and poor in this country, and financial policies that benefit certain families above others.”
Executive producer David Broome, who previously created “The Biggest Loser,” strongly defends the show as a means to inform Americans.
“Is this show about money? Yes, to some extent it is,” he told the New York Post. “But it’s money that gets you into conversations about gays, Christians, family values. We’re dealing with real, everyday issues. I want to make sure we stir up conversations in households.”
Gabe Moya, of Rio Rancho, N.M., who appears with his wife, Crystal, on June 26, agrees with the Wylies that money is not the sole focus. As “Catholic Christians,” who have to attend Mass in shifts because their family of eight can’t fit in their SUV, they hope to show how they live out their faith even as they struggle with the right decision about how to use the unexpected infusion of cash.
Krystal Moya said they sought the advice of a friend who is a priest, who helped them not feel guilty about thinking about keeping some of the money after praying to God for a sign and getting “this huge billboard.”
“This is a gift from God,” she said the priest advised them. “It’s OK to keep some of this money and that doesn’t necessarily mean if you keep it you’re going to keep it all for yourself.”
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