The makers of The Briefcase pulled a fast one when they entered the lives of Matt and Becky Wylie.
The couple from Rio Vista — a town in Johnson County, 40 miles south of Fort Worth — believed they were participating in a documentary about middle-class families and their finances.
“All we knew at first was that the company was looking for a Christian conservative Republican Texas family,” Matt Wylie says. “They asked if we knew anybody like that. We said, ‘Hey, that’s us.’”
Later, the Wylies learned that they actually had been cast in a slick TV reality show.
But as viewers will see when the Wylies are featured on The Briefcase at 7 p.m. Wednesday on CBS, it was hard for them to be mad about the deception.
Their participation, after all, brought a life-changing gift: a case containing $101,000.
Matt Wylie is a Johnson County sheriff’s constable. Show him a briefcase stuffed with bundles of crisp $100 bills and he probably immediately associates it with criminal activity. “Can I plead the Fifth about that?” he jokes.
In this case, though, everything was aboveboard. So Matt and Becky — married 21 years, with two daughters, 20-year-old Skyler and 16-year-old Haley — started thinking of the many ways they could put the money to good use.
They could use it to get out of debt. They could give Skyler, a newlywed with a baby due in May, a hand. And they could come to the aid of Becky’s sister, who was in dire need of better living quarters.
But isn’t it always the way? The cash came with a catch.
“I guess you can say we were thrown a curve ball,” Matt Wylie says.
A Nolan Ryan fastball, aimed straight at the head, is more like it.
The producers proceeded to tell the Wylies about another family in Boston, one struggling just as much to make ends meet every month. Then they were told they could keep every penny for themselves or they could share as much as they wished with the other family.
The Wylies were torn between two impulses. While they take pride in their Christian values and believe in helping others, they also know it’s important to take care of their own needs.
The show chronicles what happened over the course of the next three days, as the family waffled about what to do with all that money.
“It was very tough, very emotional, lots of tears and not a whole lot of sleep,” Becky Wylie says. “It was so hard, because you want to make the right decision and you’re constantly questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ We relied a lot on our faith in God to guide us through.”
That said, the process probably would have been much less agonizing had the Wylies known one additional twist was coming: The Boston family had a briefcase, too — and it was, at the very same time, weighing its options about how much, if any, to give to the Wylies.
The episode ends with the two families meeting face to face and revealing how much they decided to share.
There are no “losers” in this show, at least not financially. Both families wind up able to put something in their bank accounts. And while we won’t disclose the dollar amounts given away, we will offer this teaser: One family gives significantly more than the other.
The show’s unique premise stirs up a lot of dramatic tension and attracted audiences of 6.8 million and 5.3 million viewers, respectively, in its first two weeks. But it also has sparked controversy.
Most of the backlash comes from critics who have called The Briefcase exploitative and manipulative, saying that it pits poor families against one another and that it guilt-trips people into proving their selflessness by pushing them to give away more than they can afford.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. called it a “rigged morality tale,” adding in a recent opinion column that “if anyone really cared about these families’ problems, the moral course would be obvious. Let CBS (estimated value, according to Forbes, about $30 billion) give each struggling family what it needs to get back on its feet. Problem is, the moral course would not be the most entertaining course, would deprive the rest of us of watching these men and women argue, weep, shoot death glares at one another, confess intimate fears to the camera and, yes, vomit in emotional distress, as they try to make this inherently unfair decision.”
Matt and Becky, however, have only good things to say about Dave Broome, the executive producer, and the rest of his production team.
“They treated us with the utmost respect,” Matt Wylie says. “They have been wonderful throughout all of this. I can’t give them enough accolades.”
The Wylies will host a small watch party Wednesday night — family members, a few close friends and a Texas-style cookout on the grill — and they’ll see their episode for the first time, along with the rest of America.
“I just hope that people watching will see that our hearts are true,” Becky Wylie says.
“I hope that people watching will love my family like I do,” Matt Wylie adds. “That’s all I want.”
▪ 7 p.m. Wednesday
▪ KTVT/Channel 11