If you think that competing on a game show to pay off student loans sounds like something a character in a dystopian novel would have to do, you are correct! But it's also a reality happening right now, in real life, as our world inches closer and closer to its own version of Hunger Games. TruTV's Paid Off lends a helping hand to those looking to escape the crushing weight of student debt, and there's no shortage of recent grads struggling with worrisome monthly payments after getting their degrees. So how exactly can you be a contestant on Paid Off?
Apparently there was a casting call for the show listed on Backstage.com, but it's since been closed. If the show gets renewed for another season, casting will likely open back up, but it's unclear when exactly that would happen. The show was looking for contestants in the greater Atlanta area, and the only prerequisites appeared to be: 1) student debt, and 2) mad trivia skills.
"It's geared towards millennials that are drowning in student loans," the description on the site reads. "We're putting our contestants to the test with some trivia: everything going on in the world, ranging from politics to geography to student debt policy to pop culture, and even what you majored in in college."
Madeleine Pilon, a contestant on the show's first and current season, gave CNBC a bit more context as to how she came across the opportunity, and what the audition process was like. According to the article, she and some of her co-workers applied for the show, and Pilon ended up going through several interviews afterward, and eventually booked the show.
She told CNBC she was uncomfortable revealing the extent of her debt to strangers involved in casting, but ultimately got used to it. "I don’t talk about my finances with anyone really, except my boyfriend because we live together," Pilon said. It was weird putting that out there but, in the end, once everyone was saying it too, it felt less weird." She ultimately won more than $20,000, but that still didn't cover all of her debt.
There's been some controversy on social media over whether Paid Off is a fun way to help people, or if it's a series that's capitalizing on the misfortune of those drowning in debt. Host Michael Torpey, who you might recognize as one of the more horrifying prison guards on Netflix's Orange Is The New Black, apparently knows how troubling Paid Off's premise is — but according to him, that's kind of the point. "It’s a show that shouldn’t exist," he told The Atlantic. "When people see this as the best avenue for paying off their debt, it’s crazy."
He also told Paste magazine that his hope was to bring attention to the fact that America shouldn't need a show like this to clean up the student debt issue. "The show stands as this kind of exercise of lunacy… I’m going to stand here and be as dumb as possible until you make me stop," he said. "So, [those responsible for the student debt crisis can] get together and say, 'Torpey’s over there making us look like a bunch of idiots… We gotta figure this out so he’ll go away.'"
He also added that if the powers that be did find a solution, he'd abandon the show at the drop of a hat. "If [they] want to fix this, I will pull the plug on [the show] immediately," Torpey said in the same interview. "I will happily step aside if they step up and take control of the situation."
At least some viewers think Paid Off is handling things correctly, albeit in a way we wish we didn't have to see. Amanda Mull wrote for Elle magazine, "Paid Off's tone is tense and angry, balanced with enough dark humor to let you know it’s well aware that everything is colossally screwed up. The cash awards feel secondary to the task of highlighting the contours of the student loan crisis."
In a perfect world — or one that's even a little less ridiculous than this one — this show wouldn't even have been an idea at all. But that's obviously not reality. In the Atlantic piece linked above, it's reported that in just the last ten years, total student loans in America have increased from about $600 billion to almost $1.4 trillion, and other countries' citizens don't tend to have this problem. Until something real is done about it, things like Paid Off will no doubt continue to pop up here and there, and those with debt should be keeping an eye out for casting calls.