'Paid Off' is cheeky look at student debt

There's a dive bar in my old neighborhood where, every weeknight at 7:30, a small crowd of regulars gathers as the TV switches over from sports to "Jeopardy." Everyone plays along. It gets intense.

What's at stake? Nothing. But also, maybe, a lot. The times I've been there, it's hard not to get swept up, and harder still to deny that dopamine rush when you shout out the correct answer - phrased as a question, obviously - before even the fastest contestant can buzz in.

The proximity of sadness to small-scale triumph in this setting always reminds me of a quote from "Invisible Monsters," the 1999 novel by Chuck Palahniuk: "Game shows are designed to make us feel better about the random, useless facts that are all we have left of our education."

Well, that's if you're lucky. Increasingly, higher education yokes us with a lot more than just underused knowledge and unrealized career aspirations. Every story about underachievement in the millennial generation should acknowledge the snowballing crisis of student loan debt. Today, 70 percent of U.S. college students leave school in debt, and 44 million Americans collectively carry a student loan debt burden of $1.4 trillion, according to CNBC.

This grim reality is the basis for a bizarre and fascinating new game show that airs on TruTV. "Paid Off" is a trivia-based competition hosted by the actor Michael Torpey. The contestants are all higher-ed graduates buried in five-figure debt (if not worse), mostly unable to find careers in their fields.

The young-ish adults competing on "Paid Off" try to outsmart each other in a variety of buzz-in trivia games that are sometimes connected to the majors they pursued. And the winner in each episode receives, you guessed it, full relief from their loan debt.

The premise feels like a sick joke, but it's very real. The winners do get their debts paid off. The losers go home with a couple thousand dollars for being good sports but still very much in the hole for not hitting the buzzer fast enough. "Paid Off" peppers its audience with depressing facts - "Women have student loan debts 14 percent higher than men on average" - and vague calls to Congress for action on the matter. (LOL!)

Critics have described "Paid Off" as dystopian, which is accurate. Dangling such a carrot in front of desperate people is very "Hunger Games." Torpey in interviews has acknowledged that this is a game show that shouldn't exist. True, in a country where college still counted as a ticket to a dignified, middle-class existence, and where economic mobility still foreseeably existed, "Paid Off" wouldn't be a thing.

To some degree, every game show is a bit dystopian, slapping a cheerful face onto a glaring social problem that a few lucky contestants get to escape. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everybody, because our culture protects and fetishizes unearned wealth. What price is right? No price, since "right" implies a morality that is absent from capitalism by definition. How does a family achieve honor? By feuding with and dominating a weaker family.

There's a type of self-awareness to "Paid Off" that is admirable. It tries to present itself as activism, but it shouldn't be confused with a solution. Is it good that a game show about student debt relieves at least one person's problem during each episode? Sure. It's also good, I guess, that Elon Musk wants to solve the Flint water crisis, or that Domino's has started fixing roads in American cities.

But wouldn't it be better if our representative democracy supported mechanisms that could give us clean water and traversable roads by default, rather than having to rely on the whims of corporations or wackadoo billionaires?

And instead of a game show that arbitrarily grants debt relief in exchange for the otherwise useless trivia that remains our education, how about we have an economic system that rewards the acquisition of knowledge rather than punishing its participants for the rest of their lives?

Alex, I'll take "LOL" for $200.

Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.