It’s hard to watch TV this summer without having to navigate one horrific dystopia or another. There’s the misogynist theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale, the unethical data mining (and, uh, killer robots) of Westworld. There’s even a show in which ordinary people who dared to pursue higher education battle one another for the chance to pay off their student debt. Surprise! That last one isn’t just a modern-day take on The Running Man: It’s a real game show.
Premiering Tuesday on TruTV, Paid Off With Michael Torpey is pretty traditional for the genre: There are three rounds of play in which contestants buzz in to answer trivia questions and earn points. What sets it apart from other entries in the genre is what happens in the final round. If the top contestant answers eight trivia questions correctly, she wins a cash prize equal to the balance she owes on her student loans, because the contestant pool for Paid Off is the more than 40 million Americans who hold student loan debt.
After lying fallow following ABC’s early-aughts Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? blitz, prime-time game shows are having a bit of a moment again. B- and lower-list stars are visiting NBC’s Hollywood Game Night and ABC’s Match Game, Pyramid, and Celebrity Family Feud; Oscar winner Jamie Foxx hosts Fox’s Beat Shazam while Emmy winner Ellen DeGeneres lends her name to Ellen’s Game of Games on NBC. Kevin Hart’s obstacle course show TKO: Total Knock Out premieres on CBS this week. (The fate of NBC’s The Wall, hosted by Chris Hardwick, is still TBD.)
But inasmuch as its premise rests on letting contestants trade their hard-luck stories for cash and prizes, Paid Off is actually part of a tradition that predates television. Queen for a Day— originally a radio program that moved to TV in the mid-’50s—pitted female contestants against each other in a sob story battle royal, after which the audience voted via applause meter for the most heartbreaking tale of woe. Much later, ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition offered housing upgrades for people in difficult financial situations, often resulting from a family member’s illness. In 2010, the Great Recession brought us NBC’s School Pride, on which community members came together to make necessary improvements to public schools—as opposed to, say, lobbying their state or local governments to do it. ABC’s You Deserve It, the following year, made the subtext text with its title: Essentially, this was a Password/Deal or No Deal hybrid, except the player was actually trying to win money to give to a third party experiencing some kind of financial hardship.
The last recession was fueled, in part, by a mortgage crisis; economists warn that the U.S. may suffer a student loan crisis next. A study earlier this year found that 2 in 5 borrowers were likely to default. Filing for bankruptcy may not even allow a borrower to discharge her student loans, since “undue hardship” is the standard she must meet despite the fact that the term has never been legally defined and can be liberally interpreted by a presiding judge. According to 83 percent of millennial borrowers, student loan debt is a bigger impediment to their potential home ownership than budget-busting servings of avocado toast. Oppressive student debt is not the only factor contributing to millennials’ declining economic mobility, but even the conservative Heritage Foundation names it as a significant cause.
The student loan crisis entered the mainstream during the last presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders proposed to make college tuition-free; his opponent, eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, dismissed the idea when she was running against Sanders but eventually adopted a (crappier) version of Sanders’ proposal for her own platform. As you may have heard, neither Democrat was elected president, but Sanders is still in the Senate, where he and Elizabeth Warren introduced a free college tuition plan last year. The issue is also being discussed by Democratic candidates who will be on ballots for this year’s midterm elections: Rising leftist star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, defeated 10-term incumbent centrist Joe Crowley for the Democratic nomination in NY-14’s House race on a platform that included tuition-free college for all. (Crowley had supported a less ambitious plan introduced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year and, more recently, dismissed for its inadequate reach by Cuomo’s gubernatorial opponent, Cynthia Nixon.) And a study earlier this year by Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute found that if the government were to erase the $1.4 trillion in student debt currently held by borrowers, it would increase the country’s gross domestic product by between $86 billion and $108 billion a year over the next decade—which would in turn add more than 1 million new jobs to the economy.
Since this does not seem like a move the Trump administration is likely to make, borrowers’ stopgap solution is … Paid Off With Michael Torpey. When I first read about the premise of the show, I was appalled by the cynical notion of using what is, for so many people, a true-life late-capitalist nightmare as the basis for a garish entertainment product. Then I watched it and discovered that it has a somewhat sincere activist spirit.
Telenovela storylines have been developed to deliver public health messaging to their audiences; English-language shows like The Fosters and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have done much this year to dramatize the inhumanity of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and the stigma of certain mental health diagnoses. But those are scripted. I feel Iike this is the first time I’ve ever seen oppressive systems of power condemned on a game show. In the series premiere, host and creator Michael Torpey tells us he and his wife “struggled with student debt” (all hers, apparently) “and could only pay it off because, true story? I booked an underpants commercial.” Through the episode, the jokes about what the contestants are facing get dark, as they should, given that the player with the smallest debt load that week owes a staggering $17,350. Torpey’s narration suggests at different points in the game that student loan borrowers might be “about to burn down a house for the insurance money,” or get out from under their burden by “praying to get hit by a well-insured bus.” Every episode features a “Super Depressing Fact of the Week,” educating the viewer about such issues as the loan balance gender gap—the gender that gets paid more carries less debt, it turns out—and how often banks have been fined for “illicit and deceptive student loan practices.” Torpey closes each episode with a version of this narration: “We helped four people pay off their student debt today. But there are 45 million Americans out there struggling with their student loans. It doesn’t have to be this way. Call your representatives right now and tell them we need a better solution than this game show.”
Sure, as polemics go, it is pretty mild; I personally might have inserted language urging a call to reoccupy Wall Street or make up a fake person to whom you can sign over your debt, Wells Fargo–style. As a Canadian who pursued postsecondary education in that country (where tuition is a fraction of what Americans pay) and was fortunate enough to be the daughter of a university registrar for whom my tuition waiver was a benefit of his employment, I both admire the courage of the teacher who, in the third episode, goes on TV to admit to $59,000+ in student debt and am disgusted knowing that this very rich country might pay her so little that if she doesn’t win Paid Off, she could still be servicing her debt 25 years from now.
That said, given how many millennials are cord-cutters, it’s not clear how many of them will ever even know this show exists, never mind whether their feeling watching a stranger successfully beat the final round and win the whole balance of their student loan would be exhilaration or bitter envy. Maybe the show will become a huge word-of-mouth hit and TruTV can create more game shows to fill in the holes in the social safety net. Brush up on your general knowledge and you, too, could win a no-deductible gold health plan! Make it past a wall of spring-loaded boxing gloves and a labor organizer will come unionize your workplace! Name that tune and get your grandma on a waiting list for a nursing home that isn’t under investigation by the state! And if you get arrested protesting family separations at the border—well, considering that The Running Man was set in 2017, maybe you’ll get a chance to get pardoned on TV, too.