Last Sunday’s episode of "The Good Wife" didn’t have its typical storyline of an upper-class murderer, a BitCoin knock-off, or bail court. Instead, Alicia Florrick, the show’s protagonist lawyer played by Julianna Margulies, furrowed her usually smooth brow and took on a case about a student debt strike.
Debt has become something of a chic television plotline: Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell on "Mad Men") stars in a forthcoming series called "Debt," playing a man who loses all his money and then partners with a debt collection agency that takes from the rich and gives to the poor. The new hit TV show "Mr. Robot" also puts student loans and debt forgiveness front and center: The show's hacker group aims to delete consumer debt. In film, there’s "The Hunger Games" series, which revolves around symbolic debt—an allegory for a society that sacrifices its young. In this world, a claim to a social debt is a mortal weapon wielded by an otherworldly 1%. Lately, it can seem as if a coterie of TV scribes and script doctors are, four years after Occupy Wall Street, busily mining David Graeber for plot ideas.
On "The Good Wife," a young woman—a working-class veteran—sues her college for scamming her and forcing her to incur large debts for a worthless education. Later in the episode, a group of students go on a debt strike for the same reason. The episode appears to be based on the real-life student debt strike of 200 current and former students against the for-profit college Corinthian, waged by the group The Debt Collective. (Alan Cumming's TGW character Eli Gold even name-checks Corinthian.) The episode, titled “Payback,” aired at a most timely moment: Just last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau won a $500 million lawsuit against Corinthian.
Debt’s arrival to television makes sense. Today’s student debt crisis would be right at home in some of the best American films and shows that appeared from the 1940s to the 1960s, where characters are trapped by larger forces, condemned by a chain of events to disturbing lives. Student debt can make the system seem rigged, a perfect plot device for noirish narrative threads. Debt collection agencies also make for great TV villains. Think of the one-armed man in the TV show "The Fugitive"—then substitute a debt collector.
When I reported on real-life student debt last year, I discovered that debtors’ struggles often unfold in haunting, Grand Guignol ways. There are clear good guys and bad guys. In some cases, there are several layers of bad guys; some private tuition debts from for-profit colleges are sold to shady secondary debt markets and ultimately to collection companies, whose agents may threaten debtors. These are often stories of doom with high stakes. The world seems to be closing in on people, even though they are simply trying to better their lives. The "debtors" I spoke with—the good guys—are often young and female.
For Kenzie Vasquez, it all started when she was 19. She saw commercials for a for-profit college, Everest, which has a campus in San Jose, near her home in Santa Cruz, California. As soon as she expressed interest, she visited the school, where she says the recruiter immediately started pressuring her to sign up.
“I was conned,” says Vasquez, who dreamed of being a medical assistant. “I didn’t know much about going to college—neither of my parents went.”
After that first meeting, she says representatives of the school called her routinely to get her to register for the college. When she finally went to Everest’s offices to fill out enrollment paperwork, the college’s reps claimed she would receive financial aid. That aid never materialized, she says, and once she enrolled, she was struggling to pay for the gas she used driving to school. The way she tells it, when she asked the college to help pay for her books as they promised, the lady walked out on the meeting with her.
Ultimately, Vasquez dropped out due to mounting loans and the changing fortunes of the college chain, Corinthian, that ran Everest. She wound up being $40,000 in debt. “I was getting phone calls every day from debt collectors,” says Vasquez. “I am getting bombarded by these people.” When I last spoke to her, she was working as a cashier at a store and a server at an Italian restaurant, living in fear that collectors would garnish her wages. “It’s affecting me daily,” she tells me. “They shouldn’t be able to profit off my poverty.”
The mysterious offices, the fake offers of aid, the threat of stolen wages, the shady debt collectors—they all could have been elements of a neo-noir film. And like the students on "The Good Wife" or the youth in "The Hunger Games," Vasquez engaged in a rebellion worthy of the big screen: She went on a debt strike, publicly refusing to pay her tuition. As the tension on television has now escalated to the point where almost every show is about life and death, violence and murder, the student debt crisis offers an equally extreme American experience. Indeed, the debt crisis can literally result in death—financial distress has long been linked to suicide, and that extends to debt-burdened young people.
TV’s sudden interest in debt also mirrors the issue’s now-unavoidable place in our psyche. In the last decade, tuition debt has quadrupled. College costs have risen more than 1,000% and American student debt overall has surpassed one trillion dollars. It’s not the formerly rich plunged into loss now; it’s the lower middle-class, the college kids, the audience itself. In some cases, it’s even the actors and directors, a group you might think would be glamorously debt-free; "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail cites his own student debt woes as inspiration, and "Fantastic Four" star Miles Teller admitted to Vulture that he still hasn’t paid off his NYU loans. (Perhaps student debt is a new metric of authenticity in Hollywood, the 2015 equivalent of “I grew up on an army base.”)
When I ask Christina Wayne, "Debt"’s executive producer, why she chose to make a series about a debt collection agency, she replies that the themes of the show are “universal: everyone knows someone who has been called by a debt collector.” There’s “this sense of frustration” among the general population about debt. “People feel helpless,” she says. She was shocked to discover during the research process that “debt collection agencies have no authority to call you and yet they do.” In her new show, which will go into production next year, “we get to live a fantasy through the show’s central character, a guy that gets back at these evildoers in the financial world.”
The debt plot point has potential to fit into another sort of script—a redemptive story with “uplift” and “victories” that would work as well on Lifetime as it does on primetime. Take the case of the Debt Collective’s sister activist group Rolling Jubilee, which in the past few years has forgiven $17 million of more than 12,000 students’ loans by buying the debts from collective agencies for pennies on the dollar.
Picture this inspirational story: Belle Goldman came home to her Los Angeles studio apartment the summer before last, gave a pat to her cat and tore open a letter in a plain white envelope. The way things had been going, she’d expected to find something unwanted inside: a scam offer, perhaps, or yet another unpaid bill. Instead, she found a note informing her that she was no longer in debt for around $1,500 for the two months she attended Everest College. “It sounded too good to be true,” Goldman tells me.
It all seems like a financial fairytale, a Ponzi scheme in reverse. But both the horrors of student debt and the few feel-good rescues are all too real, alluring enough to warrant that classic television tagline: “These are their stories.”
This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Alissa Quart is the Executive Editor of the journalism non-profit EHRP. She is the author of the poetry book Monetized and non-fiction books including Branded and Republic of Outsiders.