Yes, The Briefcase is “the worst reality TV show ever.” But there’s one reason you should watch.

When you first meet Mandy McCracken, she is sitting on the bed, one of her three daughters putting a necklace on her.

She is smiling, red curls framing her sunny face as she talks us through her back-story.

“I ended up with four limbs amputated,” she says brightly.

 

Mark and Mandy McCracken (Via Channel 9)

Two years ago, Mandy almost died from a bacterial infection. But she survived, and now she is a quadruple amputee. Her husband Mark is her full-time carer. "We are entirely welfare dependent" he tells the camera earnestly.  They're raising three girls on a pension just over $900 a week.

And they are the subjects of a show that's been dubbed by Time Magazine as "The worst reality show ever."

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Listen to Rosie Waterland and Laura Brodnik talk it out on The Binge podcast:

 

The Briefcase is a show in which the needs of the disabled, the chronically ill, the homeless and the desperate are pitted against each other. Two families are given $100,000 dollars with a twist: they can either keep it all, keep some of it, or give it all away to another family in a desperate situation.

Only they can be the judge of who is more desperate.

It was cancelled after just one season in the United States after critics called it “repulsive” and “cynical”.

And now Channel 9 has made a local version.

This time it's different, they insist. It's a 'social experiment'  (the TV buzzword of the year), an investigation of whether 'it's better to give or receive'.

But it raises major ethical questions. Not just between the contestants, but from television producers who apparently identified the needy families through community groups and support services, and who allegedly told them they were participating in a documentary.

"Both families have no idea their lives are about to change" the voiceover says.

Indeed they did not.  They were recruited under the pretense of a 'documentary' and had the money, the ethical dilemma, the entire show construct sprung upon them.

And now, they're at the centre of what is essentially 'desperation porn', where their lives and their decision are left open to an audience to decide: are they greedy for keeping the money? Are they selfish for wanting a holiday? Are their desperate needs MORE desperate than others?

Mark is a full time carer to his wife, Mandy. (Via Channel 9)

When presented with a suitcase of $100,000, Rod McCracken bends down and sniffs the money. "This is Hollywood!" he marvels, explaining that $100,000 is a set of legs for Mandy.

Then there's Jim and Jenny Carter. Salt of the earth sheep farmers whose home and farm in the Grampians was ravaged by fire. They're now living in a caravan with their teenage daughters and a mounting debt of $2000  a week. They hug when they see the money.
"Oh darling, just think!" says Jim.  "It's pennies from heaven".
That may well be, Jim. But you saying that in a clean promo grab is dollars from ratings. (Via Channel 9)
Although there's much wailing about the ethics of this show, there's one reason you need to watch it. The most redeeming factor:
The people. The people are heaven. Underdog battlers, empathetic to degrees not ever seen on reality TV before.  Both families are adamant the other family is better off.

And Mandy McCracken, in particular, is everything. An angel, surely.

This woman almost died two years ago and yet we see her slipping on her prosthetic leg and exclaiming "oh, it's comfy!". They go to the other family's house and she breaks down in tears at the sight of their bills. "Our problems are not financial," she says, overcome by the weight of the other family's problems as she clasps a tissue between prosthetic fingers.

Husband Rod thinks they will give all their money to the other family. Mandy's chewing it over in her head. She was thinking maybe they could just skim off $5K so they could go on a warm holiday in Queensland for "a little treat."

No, Rod says firmly.  We can find that money elsewhere.

"What message am I sending to my girls? How am I helping them grow up in this world if I keep it?"

The compassion is almost painful to watch. (Via Channel 9)

It's easy to get swept away in the emotion in it. You will probably cry. You will want to hug Mandy and Jenny. You will want to have a beer with Jim and tell Rod to take your wallet and empty it on a Queensland holiday.

But what may sit in the back of you mind, apart from the exploitation and the selling of desperation couched in inspiration, is the way this show can frame desperate people as 'the good guys' or 'the bad guys'.

This episode has a happy ending. But, what if the next one doesn't? What if you're the family who didn't give a severely disabled woman money because you chose to renovate your house so you could stop living in a caravan?

When people are willing to show their lives warts-and-all for a documentary, that's one thing. But to have a moral dilemma thrust upon you to chew over for three days, with no warning, gives these people no chance to think about how they will be framed in a media sense.  It throws them to a social media audience hungry for outrage and commentary and opinion.

Whatever happens in this series, whether you watch or boycott, just remember the people in these shows are hard-working, desperate humans. They're not the real winners here.

The real winner is the network. The executives who write these shows and the producers who make them.

The Briefcase premieres Monday, June 20 at 7.30pm on Channel Nine.

Want more smart TV talk? You'll love The Binge, our TV podcast with Rosie Waterland and Laura Brodnik. Subscribe in itunes or listen to the full episode here, where Rosie and Laura have quite a different take on The Briefcase:

*feature image Jim Carter and Mandy McCracken, via Channel 9

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