America’s dystopian future is now, and it’s manifesting itself in the form of a game show about the crushing weight of our collective student loan debt.
“Paid Off With Michael Torpey” debuted on TruTV this week, billing itself as a fast-paced game show giving three overeducated, underemployed saps the chance to win money toward their student loans.
Actor Michael Torpey hosts the show, which he co-created with production company Cowboy Bear Ninja. In a series of trivia rounds, low-scoring contestants are eliminated. The one left standing is challenged to a lightning round to win cash toward a percentage of their student loan debt.
“Paid Off” is not as fast-paced as it promises, and the canned laughs can be cringeworthy. But we’re only one episode into the show. Have you ever seen the first episode of “Wheel of Fortune”? I didn’t think so.
But while the game show is basic in premise, it underscores the haunting reality of student loan debt.
Better Call Congress
TruTV, the TBS spinoff station known for marathons of “Impractical Jokers” and the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, is not where you typically turn for a hard-hitting look at the student loan debt crisis.
But here we are in 2018, 10 years removed from the crippling financial crisis of 2008, still Twitter-shrugging about the sorry health of Americans’ finances. Our collective student loan debt is up to $1.4 trillion, in case you lost count. And defaults on those loans are rising at a dramatic rate.
Host Torpey sets up the first episode by confessing that booking an underwear commercial helped him pay off his student loans. Then he makes each contestant admit how far in the hole they are. They are all freshly scrubbed twentysomethings with student loan debt as high as $41,000. They each call out the names of their alma maters in a series of sick burns to tuition rates.
It’s awkward on purpose. Executive producer Michael Melamedoff said that it’s easy to ignore financial hardship like student debt as someone else’s problem. But, “these are real people with real names who went to real schools and are carrying real debt,” he said.
As soon as someone gets booted after the first round of trivia, the game leans fully into the gallows humor. Torpey tells the contestant he’ll get $1,000 as a consolation prize, then instructs him to walk over to a red phone in the middle of the audience and call Congress to tell representatives to do something about student loans. It’s not even a particular Congress member. It’s just a call to the body as a whole. “Hello, Congress?” the sweating contestant mews into the phone.
Expecting a second “call” to Congress after the next round? Nah. This time, the exiled contestant is instructed to pass a giant greeting card around the audience. It says “Keep it up!” on the front, and Torpey explains it’s for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who helped found the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and does not like student loan debt.
Those vignettes are symbolic, Melamedoff explained, reminders of the show’s overarching call to action.
“The game show is an absurd response and maybe the worst response to this crisis,” he said. “I don’t take it lightly that we’re making a game show about a real crisis.”
Whether you laugh at the jokes or are outraged at the fact that the show even exists, Melamedoff hopes that “Paid Off” encourages viewers to start talking about the ways that student debt has impacted our lives.
“We want to allow people to laugh against the grain of a very sobering message,” Melamedoff said.
‘Paid Off’: Where the Consolation Prizes Are Still Prizes
Even after the first episode’s top winner walks off with $24,000 toward her loans, host Torpey provides a depressing fact of the week (hint: it’s about student loan debt) and challenges an audience member to a bonus set of trivia questions for the chance to win some cash. The audience member takes home $1,000.
A grand may not seem like much of a dent in some student loan tabs, but Melamedoff is proud that every one of the show’s 64 first-season contestants has gone home with a cash award. He said that the show gave out close to $500,000 over the season’s 16 episodes.
Before the episode ends, Torpey sends one last plea to the audience at home: “Call your representatives right now, and tell them we need a better solution to student loan debt than this game show.”
It’s Melamedoff’s takeaway behind the scenes, too.
“Whether people love our show or are angry it exists, I hope it motivates people to pick up the phone and call their representatives,” he said.
You used to try out for a game show hoping to win a nice vacation, or at least a rice cooker. Now, like a jaded teenager making a Christmas list, we’re just asking for cash. This is how far down we are, how desperate we are. Please just give us the cash. Compounding interest has made us weary.
Half a million down, $1,399,999,500,000 to go.
Lisa Rowan (@lisatella) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.