I went into Paid Off with Michael Torpey earnestly thinking it might be a joke. The premise, that three contestants compete for truTV to pay off their college debt, seemed so self-evidently absurd that I reasoned there must be a twist: that, surprise!, the show would end up paying off every contestant’s debt and give some other token award to whoever actually wins each episode. The alternative would be that truTV re-victimizes the victims of a monstrous debt crisis for laughs and ad dollars, which would just be Kafkaesque… right? You can’t just take working people with debilitating debt, dangle relief in front of them, and then withhold it… can you?
Apparently you can.
Paid Off tries diligently to be a good, compassionate show about the systemic injustice that has left 44 million people struggling with $1.4 trillion in debt. It comprises three rounds of overwhelmingly easy trivia, with the lowest-scoring contestant leaving each round. There’s no penalty for incorrect answers, and as host Michael Torpey (Orange Is the New Black) likes to say, nobody goes home empty-handed: Eliminated contestants leave with a grand or two. As they depart, Torpey makes a grander call to action that usually doubles as a punchline. He sends one loser to a “direct-to-Congress” phone in the audience; he tasks another with gathering audience signatures on an oversized thank-you card for Elizabeth Warren; a third is instructed to deliver a pep talk about debt. At the end of each episode he selects an audience member (in debt as well) for a final round of trivia and shenanigans, but first he has them read the “Super Depressing Fact of the Week.” In episode one, that fact reads: “According to Forbes, on average, women in college have initial student loan balances that are 14% higher than men’s.” Torpey responds with an exasperated grunt. “Kind of makes you a little pissed off, right?” he says. “Makes you want to punch a wall?” The contestant agrees, and Torpey exclaims: “Well you know what, today we’re playing Punch the Wall!!” This turns out to be a game where you answer a few questions and, depending on how many you answer correctly, punch through covered holes in a wall to access the treasures within—maybe money, maybe a cantaloupe. Did I mention the contestant chosen for this structural sexism-themed game is a man?
That’s the problem with Paid Off in a nutshell: It treats student loan debt more as the theme of a party than a public crisis that exists for identifiable reasons, can be solved with identifiable actions, and is actively keeping millions of people from living lives of dignity and security—people like its own contestants, whom it asks to stake their futures on questions like, “What late night talk show host’s fan base is known as Team Coco?” (In another game, one contestant enacts the popping of the debt bubble by popping balloons with a pointy hat.) At no point in the episodes made available to critics does Torpey, the show’s creator, discuss why so many people are in so much debt, nor what can be done about it. The closest he comes is an occasional vague call on Congress to do something about “the situation.” But what is the situation, I wonder? Could it be that tuition is growing faster than inflation, federal aid is falling behind, wages are stagnating, families are culturally indoctrinated with the false promise than an outrageously expensive education is a worthy investment, and teenagers are asked to make life-defining financial decisions before their brains have finished developing? And what should Congress do about it—raise funding for federal grants? Cancel all existing debt? Eliminate tuition for public education? Torpey frequently quips that a game show is a comically inadequate solution to the problem he wants to solve, so it’s a shame that he seems disinterested in advocating for any actual fixes. Instead he gives considerable airtime to profoundly unfunny bits: the “terrible roast comic” who delivers clues in roast form (“They call you the red planet, but if you sent me an email you’d be known as the unread planet!”), a time-traveler who asks about movies that don’t exist in his dystopian future. What do these have to do with student loan debt? Nothing—they have nothing to do with student loan debt. It’s a tremendous missed opportunity, and frankly cruel to use real suffering as a pretext for shitty jokes.
More frustrating is the fact that Paid Off doesn’t even put its money where its mouth is—or where its mouth pretends to be, at least. There is no doubt in my mind that truTV, a multimillion-dollar cog in a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate, could easily pay off the debt of every single contestant on this show. Instead it takes unexplained pains not to. For instance: The contestant who makes it to the final round must answer a sequence of questions, either general knowledge or tailored to their college major. For every question they answer correctly, they win “a percentage” of their full debt, with eight correct answers yielding 100%. You might think seven answers yields seven-eighths of their debt, but guess again—it only nets 50%, for some reason. Meanwhile the contestants who walk away after rounds one and two receive the value of their correct answers, rounded up to the nearest thousand. Those answers are all for paltry sums, however—$100, $200—so what they earn is a drop in the bucket of a five-figure debt. (And truTV apparently doesn’t even cover taxes on the winnings.) I mean, I get it, but on the other hand I just don’t get it! The guy who wins a full payoff in episode three has more debt than everyone in episode two combined. The money exists. Whether or not a contestant gets it depends on their ability to answer softball questions about what planet Superman is from and how many minutes there are in four weeks. Seriously!
This gets to the heart of why Paid Off is such an embarrassing failure. It purports to criticize a broken web of systems that promise rewards for hard work and skill, and instead reward arbitrary factors like race, gender and class. But the show is perversely designed to make winning as easy as possible while making it arbitrarily difficult to actually receive any meaningful amount of money. In this sense it reenacts the very phenomenon it claims to indict. And “meaningful” money is no small distinction here: Unlike other game shows, Paid Off makes painfully clear that its contestants really do need the money to get on with their lives. To put that money in front of them and then take it away is cruel enough. To do so in the guise of a comedy show is something else entirely.
I’m not suggesting Paid Off should instead require skill, specialization and strategy. Were it to actually adopt any point of view other than “debt is bad,” it might realize the corruption of a system that predicates financial well-being on labor and skill. (It might also have more to joke about than, well, nothing.) No, the solution isn’t to make people work harder for debt relief—it’s to just relieve their debt. Paid Off could have been the first great socialist comedy show of our era. Instead it’s Jimmy Fallon meets The Hunger Games. What a disgrace.
Paid Off premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on truTV.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.