“Australia’s most exploitative reality show, ever,” says The Sydney Morning Herald. “After watching two episodes of this I can only conclude it is morally bankrupt,” says TV Tonight. “Poverty porn,” says news.com.au. “There is always room for good drama and well-told personal stories on our screens,” wrote the Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien in one of the more balanced pieces we’ve seen. “But we’ve all had enough of freak-show TV.”

It’s probably not what Nine was looking for when it sent TV critics preview copies of its new show, The Briefcase.

Like much of what’s seen on Australian networks, the show is an adaptation of a (failed) US concept. But Nine thinks it can make it work here.

The Briefcase’s premise is that every week, two families with serious financial difficulties are each given $100,000. Each is then introduced to the other family (without knowing that they also have been given a briefcase full of cash) and over three days, they learn about that family. At the end, they can decide to share some or all of their $100,000 with the other family, or keep the full amount themselves.

The drama and entertainment lies in seeing whether a poor family will choose generosity or self-preservation.

In an interview with news.com.au, Nine head of development Adrian Swift defended the show, saying it was nothing like the American version, which relied on “stunt casting”:

“We’ve cast it completely differently. The core conceit of the show is still there, but we haven’t stunt cast it with dwarfs and drug addicts …

“They’re people like us who have had some major crisis in their life which means they’re down on their luck. A health issue, a farmer who lost their fences and stock in a fire. These are normal people who’ve had some extraordinary event in their life.”

Fairfax’s Michael Lallo says being a little bit better isn’t much:

“I’ve seen both. The best I can say of the Aussie version, starting on June 20, is that it’s less bad. Yet still appalling.

“Cloaking itself with the genuine decency of its participants, it peddles the myth of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Instead of scrutinising the economic roots of disadvantage, it suggests individual acts of kindness as a solution. As viewers, we’re invited to arbitrate awful situations as we scratch ourselves on the couch. ‘What would you do?’ the promo asks.”

The US version was cancelled after only one season, after brutal reviews and poor ratings. Though on Radio National’s Religion and Ethics Report this week, RMIT journalism academic Alex Wake said she could see the Australian version doing well.

“From all I’ve read and heard about it so far, I think Australians are going to love it. We love the underdog, we love the battler … I think the producers of the Australian version are going to be much more careful.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey