Most people view reality TV as a guilty pleasure. I tend to agree—that it can be a pleasure to watch and that we should feel rather guilty for it—but not just for the reasons you might imagine (exploitation, public humiliation, greed). Shows which prey on the lives of the desperate to wring a few emotions out of the audience are nothing but reformulated morality plays, crafted so viewers are placed in the enviable position of judge and jury, deciding who is worthy and righteous, and who is not—a position that the Bible makes clear was never meant for us.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new, controversial CBS show The Briefcase. The premise goes like this: a family in financial need is given a briefcase full of $101,000. Naturally, they freak out on camera and are overcome with happiness. Then they are told that there is another family, just as in need of money as they are. And the family has 72 hours to decide if they will keep the money or give some (or all) of it away to these strangers in need.
I suspect that as many viewers watch the countenances of the previously joyful families fall, they start to feel it is inappropriate to watch for personal entertainment. A tragedy, the intimate struggle of morality that we all face, lit by hot camera lights and sandwiched by advertisements for stuff we don’t need. And then you find out the twist: the other family is given an identical suitcase and told an identical story, but neither is aware of this fact. The next few days go by in a blur, and the families are given bits of information about each other and eventually paw through each other’s homes, looking for clues about their life situation, what their financial and social pressures are—and at the end, at the big reveal, they face each other and are either shamed or exhilarated at the amount they chose to share.
I decided to watch one episode at random. In the first few minutes of the program, as the squirmy conceit is explained via voice-over, the phrase “middle-class families” is mentioned no less than four times. This is important, because already we assume that these people will be deserving. If they were rich or poor, we would have to worry about their moral credentials. But since they belong to the mythically elevated group that so many of us ostensibly identify with, we can breathe a sigh of relief.
One of the families in this episode is from small-town Texas, with all of the cultural trappings you might expect: white, God-fearing, fun-loving Republicans (their words, not mine). They have back injuries, college tuition and weddings to pay for, and the first grandchild on the way. The other family is a multiracial lesbian couple who are caring for their two nephews in the heart of Baltimore. They would like to pay for private school for the boys and be able to afford fertility treatments in order to have children of their own.
Obviously, these families have been juxtaposed for peak dramatic effect. The Texans slowly realize that the family whose financial happiness lies in their hands does not conform to their views of marriage or morality. The Baltimore family struggles with their initial charitable impulses being tempered by their dreams for children. As they walk through each other’s houses—with the inhabitants absent, of course—looking at family photographs and bills strategically scattered on kitchen counters, they struggle to empathize.
This particular episode ended with the women in Baltimore choosing to give away all but $400, while the Texan family gave away a quarter of their money. I felt tense and breathless as I watched, judging the Texans for giving away less, and judging the lesbian couple for their self-satisfied smiles. The recipients left humbled, bewildered, grateful, and more than a little shell-shocked; and they promised to use the money for only good things.
The show constantly asks the question “What would you do?” (In fact, they even have a hashtag: #WhatWouldUdo.) As the one watching, it is easy to be sure of myself. Of course, I would give it away. Of course, I would keep only enough to help others. Of course, I would prove how righteous I am.
The message that The Briefcase—and indeed, the vast majority of reality TV and competition shows—bludgeons us with is that there are deserving people and there are those who are not. At this particular moment in America, many of us probably believe “deserving” includes being middle-class, caring for family members, not being overtly racist or homophobic, and proving that you work hard.
If there are deserving people, then there must be the opposite. And in the world of reality shows, we get to decide who is who. Only those who are good and sad and have tried really hard deserve a new house, $100,000, or a chance to compete on Master Chef. Anyone else, well, they might not have earned those second chances or a shot at fame. And this would not be acceptable or palatable to the average viewer, myself included, all because of our underlying horror that we will somehow be taken advantage of.
“God helps those who help themselves” is how many people understand reality. I hear this mantra all the time, and I also believe it at times. Oh, how we wish we lived in a meritocracy, where good begat good and evil begat punishment. Christians have even taken to reading the Bible along these terms, forcing God into a purveyor of blessings based on a simple formula. The good are rewarded accordingly, and the wicked are punished. Except, of course, the Bible contradicts these points wildly, showing us time and again that God chooses to use messed-up, horrible, lazy, indifferent, angry, lying people to accomplish his purposes. God is not—as we who try hard to be good so often wish he was—in the business of policing and rewarding. He is, instead, a God of scandalous grace who offers freedom from ourselves and sin when we embark on the wild ride of saying yes to whatever he might ask of us.
Our culture, much like TheBriefcase, is steeped in the myths of moralism—where only the select, perfect few receive reward. Humans love to create ever smaller, tribal definitions of who is worthy. It speaks to our love of rules and regulations, legalism and punishment—all systems which are set up to benefit the dominant culture. It makes sense that we humans would love to be the ones who decide who is good and who is not, how we love to imagine that we are like God. But the God of the Bible does not play by these rules. Instead, he blesses and bestows grace on the undeserving—gluttons and drunkards, the unscrupulously wealthy and the immoral—always the opposite of our intuitions. Jesus himself came to be taken advantage of, and he asks us to be willing for the same to happen to us: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back” (Luke 6:30, ESV).
What would he do? Perhaps he would give all the money away. Or perhaps he would refuse to play by our rules at all, opting instead to bestow mercy freely, whether or not we deserve it.
D. L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order amongst the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside kingdom. She likes to write about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Geez, Curator, and Conspire! among others.