The Greatest Crisis Of My Generation Is Now A Dystopian Game Show

The most excruciating minute of the series premiere of “Paid Off” ― truTV’s new game show that offers contestants the possibility of a life free of student debt ― comes near the end, when Madeleine, a graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College, walks up to the middle of the stage as the only player to make it to the show’s final round.

Madeleine, who is saddled with $41,222 in debt, has the chance to wipe it all away in an instant, should she answer eight trivia questions correctly over a 60-second period. Before the final round begins, the show’s host, Michael Torpey of “Orange Is the New Black” fame, stops to ask her what her dream life would look like if she were to magically rid herself of the tens of thousands she owes.

“Right now, I live in a tiny little loft apartment with my boyfriend and my dog,” Madeleine answers. “I would love to marry my boyfriend and move into a home with a yard.”

If “Black Mirror” is a dystopian glimpse at where society is headed, “Paid Off” is an even more horrifying peek at where it already stands. Maybe on another game show in another era ― say, the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” of the early 2000s ― Madeleine would have dreamed of a McMansion, or a fancy car, or a trip around the world on a luxury cruise. But this is the United States of America circa 2018, and Madeleine is one of the more than 40 million Americans struggling to get out from under a collective $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.

For Madeleine and the millions of other people like her, just getting back to zero would be a reason to celebrate.

In 2014, truTV rebranded itself as something of a comedy outfit, a switch reflected in the channel’s slogan, “Funny because it’s tru.” With “Paid Off,” it’s clear truTV is testing the furthest limits of that concept. The show is packed with all the zany hallmarks typical of a network game show: the bright lights, the stylized lecterns, the studio audience ― it’s all there. In other words, “Paid Off” is supposed to be fun and funny.

But if “Paid Off” has any chance of becoming a hit, it will be for more sadistic reasons, however unintentional. That much is apparent from the top of the show, when Torpey tells Madeleine, “You have the most debt. You get to pick first.” No matter how gently Torpey puts it, he’s also clearly laying out the stakes for the three people across from him: Win or remain indebted.

Like it or not, this is the world we live in now: people’s pain being set to a laugh track for all of us to enjoy. “Black Mirror,” eat your fucking heart out.

The decision to develop a light-hearted game show around something so suffocating and personal as student debt seems an odd proposition. Watch the show, and whatever reasoning propelled “Paid Off” to TV doesn’t become much clearer.

The brightly lit stage has an almost cartoonish feel as the three debt-ridden contestants stand near an image of Lady Justice; meanwhile, Torpey appears in front of a vault, presumably there to represent the contestants’ prospective financial freedom. If that doesn’t get the point across clearly enough, the words “Paid Off” appear in black-and-green on the walls and floor. Animated dollar bills rain down the set’s digital screens.

The actual game part of the show comes off as a slapdash afterthought. There is little innovation here, and a lot it is wholly derivative. It’s three rounds, mostly comprising trivia, some of the either-or variety with a bit of “Family Feud”-style guessing in between. Categories include “Finger The Masters,” “Sick Burns,” “2 Fast or 2 Furious” and “Goodfellas or Thomas & Friends.”

The questions are so basic (can you name “the ‘-ology’ that studies illegal activities and the people who commit them”?) that you realize early on what separates “Paid Off” from a show like “Jeopardy.” Here, testing your intellectual rigor isn’t really the point.

Torpey does what he can to reassure those of us at home struggling with student debt ourselves that he’s laughing with us, not at us, during the admittedly ridiculous affair unfolding on-screen. At the top of the first episode, which aired Tuesday, he relays his and his wife’s own struggles to rid themselves of her student debt, which they were only able to do after he booked an underwear commercial earlier in his career.

He made this show for those out there still struggling with debt, he says. And hey, no contestants are punished for wrong answers. In fact, everyone leaves with at least $1,000. After one contestant’s elimination, he receives a card meant for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that says “Keep It Up,” which Torpey wants the audience to sign. (Warren is a well-known advocate for student loan debtors.) Another was told to make a call (almost undoubtedly fake) to Congress before he departed. At the end of each episode, Torpey implores viewers to call their representatives too.

But watching the greatest crisis of my generation play out in the form of a half-hour comedy game show feels, if not wholly exploitative, too bizarre to ignore. The corny drum rolls, the sound effects, all of it makes you wonder whether this show will go on to humiliate a debtor or two before all is said and done. But then again, what’s a momentary loss of dignity compared to the prospect of waking up with a clean financial slate?  

Paid Off” works hard to keep the mood light, so much so that at times you forget what’s at stake for the people on stage. That is, until you see Nico ― an education major from William Peace College with $17,350 in debt ― throw his head back in frustration when he loses out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance at total debt relief in the first round. He’s a good sport, but what’s really underneath that smile?

The same goes for Jay, who looks to the sky and prays (semi-jokingly) at the start of the game, only to bow out in the second round. In one particularly questionable bonus segment, a man in the audience with $36,538 in debt to his name is invited to punch a wall multiple times while circus music plays in the background, earning him $1,000, a melon and a sandwich. What, exactly, is fun about this?

If you’re feeling kind, “Paid Off” could be described as a PSA masquerading as a good time, the sort of thing freshman life-skills teachers throw on when they’re feeling lazy on a Friday. Or, you might describe it as a freakish example of capitalism owning itself. After all, we’re watching three grown adults grapple with the fact that this impossibly idiotic show is their best hope of solving the biggest economic problem in their lives.

As depressing as it is to watch the whole ordeal unfold, it’s also difficult not to wonder whether “Paid Off” is destined to be canceled and forgotten ― or to be the first of many. We already live in a GoFundMe world, where only those lucky enough to go viral get help with their insurmountable bills. So why not tack on a “Wheel of Fortune” for medical debt? Or a “Family Feud” for foreclosure? Hell, I’d even watch a “Deal or No Deal” for child care costs.

By the time Madeleine steps up for her 60-second shot at a clean slate, she has already won $3,600 and is all smiles. But that doesn’t make it any less agonizing to watch her as the lights dim and the clock starts. It doesn’t make it any more bearable when she doesn’t realize Denver is the “mile-high” city that legalized retail marijuana and that Dr. Dre’s full name is Andre Young.  

And it certainly doesn’t make it any easier when the clock stops, and Torpey has to inform her that she came up one answer short of answering eight correctly. If only she had known the answer to that Jane Goodall question. Oh, well. Maybe next week’s finalist will successfully climb out from beneath her debilitating pile of Navient-managed debt.

It’s not all bad though. Torpey informs her that she still won $24,211, enough to cut her student debt by more than half. “I know it’s not everything,” he says to her.

“It’s a lot,” she replies.

They hug, and Madeleine seems happy. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to win a student-debt game show on truTV.

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