ABC’s entry in the Heartwarming Holiday Special Olympics this year is You Deserve It, a game show where contestants enter to win fabulous cash prizes…for someone other than themselves. Entrants select a recipient for their winnings, which decrease with every hint, known as a ‘clue,’ they require in order to get the answer to an initial prompt. The pressure’s on, Suzie! Get an answer wrong and it’s one less package of diapers for a needy household.
Right out of the gate, the pilot promised ‘a riveting new breed of game show’ for viewers, and it kept stressing it throughout the first episode; a show, viewers were assured, that was about giving, rather than winning. Something that would completely revolutionise the reality show lineup.
The drama cuts back and forth between a traditional game show format, anecdotes from the lives of the contestants, and a hidden camera that follows the unwitting recipient. And it airs, of course, during the holidays, when the minds of viewers are turning to charity, contributions, and hard times between back to back Tiny Tim specials.
Reality television has exploded on the global consciousness, ever since the introduction of Big Brother. Countless spinoffs and new iterations on the reality show premise have attracted millions of viewers, from dancing competitions to isolation on remote islands. Many networks are dumping scripted programming in favour of far more profitable reality television, much to the dismay of some viewers. ABC claims to be mixing things up with You Deserve It, despite the fact that the reality television genre shows no signs of being in trouble.
But is You Deserve It really all that revolutionary?
The show seems more like an especially timely reminder of social attitudes about ‘the deserving poor’ and who is entitled to charity. A poverty porn opening has the contestant tearfully explaining why the recipient deserves the money, horking back snot and smiling bravely for the camera, before being challenged with a series of questions, each of which offers an opportunity to raise more money. Openers make sure to dress the idea that the recipient is specifically deserving, which raises the spectre of who is not deserving.
You Deserve It exploits the current financial situation to muster up tales of woe which primarily situate poverty and difficult times as personal, rather than institutional, problems. Viewers are assured that bad luck and random circumstances cause people to fall upon hard times, and that people may be just as readily rescued through charity and thus should wait patiently to be lifted out of their dire circumstances. Nowhere in You Deserve It are there larger discussions about why recipients need charity in the first place, and whether the ‘fortune’ touted on the show is really enough to address the systemic problems they’re fighting.
Recipients on this show are neatly scrubbed and polished, exactly the sort of people the public thinks of when they imagine deserving recipients of charity. They’re widows and mothers trying their best to raise children in a harsh world, say, who lend a helping hand where they can. As ideal charity cases, they present a comfortable model for viewers; they may have lost homes to foreclosure, but it’s because they needed funds to support the community church. They don’t challenge viewers with tougher situations, like a single mother trying to raise seven children on welfare, or someone who overstretched financially, lying on a loan application to get a bigger house and nothing thinking about the potential consequences of that ‘undeserved’ jumbo loan.
A sharp line is drawn here between people who deserve charity; those who are righteous and giving and kind and clean and friendly, and those who do not. By extension, it also provides an object lesson in who ‘deserves’ to be poor and struggling in the United States. For middle class viewers, the show maintains a state of comfort, security, and lack of personal responsibility. They don’t need to take any actions to address poverty in their own communities or examine the complicity in their own actions. For poor viewers, it’s yet another reminder that they only ‘deserve’ charity if they obey the rules and stay within the lines.
This is familiar ground for ABC, which aired Secret Millionaire earlier this year; the premise on that show involved millionaires going undercover, slumming it for a few weeks as they lived like poor people, before identifying a charity (or more than one) to distribute funds to. Again, Secret Millionaire heavily stressed mythologies about the deserving poor, with a healthy side of bootstrapping as the millionaires lectured viewers about how hard they worked to get where they were.
Apparently ABC has decided to specialise in uplifting rags to riches fairytales for viewers, a reminder that those who are patient and work hard and develop a nice set of manners may, just may, have a chance at escaping poverty. Perhaps the network should consider renaming itself the Horatio Alger channel; it would certainly be more fitting to the type of content currently on offer.