At this point, people are willing to do anything to get rid of their student loan debt. The nation’s collective student loan has reached trillions of dollars, and nobody seems to have a plan that actually could help those suffering in the midst of adulthood, still haunted by the financial decisions of their youth. Somehow though, game shows have become a strange oasis in the desert. Winners can put their prize money towards medical treatment, marriage, moving, starting a business — all things that often cannot be done without borrowing an enormous sum of money to pay back later.
TruTV has decided to cash in on this new economy with a new show that got a ton of press this week for how depressing its existence seems. Paid Off is a simple trivia show where contestants answer questions for a chance to have all of their student loan debt taken care of. The premise only seemed ridiculous for a few seconds, before I started wondering how easy it would be to sign up.
Paid Off is hosted by Michael Torpey, best known for playing a dirty corrections officer on Orange Is The New Black. Torpey, too, had struggled with debt, which he was only able to escape by booking an underwear ad, as he told viewers in the season premiere, which debuted this past Tuesday. The three contestants — Nico, a white man; Jay, a black man; and Madeleine, a white woman, all seemingly millennials — weren’t so lucky, now required to endure the painfully-scripted jokes as they turned to the camera and admitted their financial mistakes. They looked ashamed as they uttered the amounts. All of them went to small liberal arts-based schools or programs, incurring debts ranging from the thousands to the tens of thousands. Madeleine, who studied anthropology, had the most debt with $41,222 to go, and because of this ignoble distinction was allowed to start the game off.
The first round involved basic trivia questions about subjects like classic art and basic science terms, each correct answer worth $100. (There is no penalty for wrong answers, because according to Torpley he just wants to give them some money.) Because the questions were so easy, it essentially became a game of speed, and Madeleine won the first round. The second round was more of the same, though it included photo hints of the answer, and the presence of Alan Jones, an “insult comic,” to banter with Torpey and disturb the lethargy of the pacing. Would Madeleine stay in the lead, or fizzle out? Who deserved to win more — her, so she could finally afford to marry her boyfriend, or maybe Jay, who still worked as a server? There was no chance I would root for Nico, though, because he seemed dopily in over his head, even by the context of the game. In one moment, Jones described a planet that is no longer considered a planet, but a dwarf planet. Nico, who had $17,350 of debt left to go on his education degree, confidently answered “Uranus,” with a smirk on his face that reminded me of a 13-year-old boy.
After the the third round, which required the contestants to answer survey questions like an episode of Family Feud, Nico was sent home with a paltry $600 to his name, as he was in third place. He was encouraged to use the show’s “straight to Congress” phone line to give the government a piece of his mind. The jokey, but not-so-jokey interaction immediately reminded us of the gravity of the situation. These people were here as a last-ditch effort. The money he won wasn’t going to do anything for Nico, and calling Congress probably would produce the same, if not smaller, result. In the final round, the contestants had to decipher between two different sets of names, and match them to their group. Were these the names of characters in Good Fellas or Thomas and Friends? Was this slang from the ‘20s, ‘80s, or now? Madeleine came out on top; they sent Jay home with $2,300 and an encouraging greeting card. He was meant to get audience members to sign it, so they could send it off to Elizabeth Warren. I’ll let you decide how you feel about that.
By now, the mood of the show was not great. The contestants had come here to be rescued from the hell of life under debt; they had mostly failed. As a reward for stepping over the bodies of her fellow citizens, Madeleine was allowed to participate in a rapid fire trivia round. If she was able to get all eight answers correct in 60 seconds, she could eliminate all her student loan debt. I fantasized about being in her place, and mentally screamed at her when she stumbled over questions. This was the chance of a lifetime — but in a true heartbreaker, she fell just short at seven correct answers. In the end, she went home with $24,211.
Even then, she had a little less than half her original debt left. If she had only gotten one more question right, the entire weight on her shoulders would’ve been taken away. I can’t imagine the self-loathing she might have felt; she smiled, but I’m sure she was dying on the inside. Her chance had been right there, and she blew it. It was very weird to realize that although she won, she still had a long way to go on her own. She was better off than Nico or Jay, true, but there was still no escape. The game show had looked like the light at the end of the tunnel, they hadn’t reached it. . At the end, Torpey urged viewers to call Congress again. I didn’t, but I did search online for a casting call.