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Photo: Jeremy Freeman/truTV

It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie, but it's a real show on TruTV

It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie: A game show in which contestants compete to pay off the thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars in debt that they racked up in order to receive a college education. But this isn’t The Hunger Games or The Running Man, and Michael Torpey isn’t Caesar Flickerman or Damon Killian, cackling as the world burns. The host and creator of TruTV’s Paid Off is well-aware that his show might seem distasteful, but his goal is to educate and inspire while entertaining, not to mock or exploit the contestants trapped by a fundamentally unequal system.

“If you hate me, that’s okay,” Torpey says. “One of the largest goals of the show is to create a conversation about higher education in the United States, and what people are being forced to go through in order to better themselves.” On Paid Off, that means answering trivia questions and participating in somewhat goofy challenges, led by the approachable (if occasionally slightly smarmy) Torpey, who has less of a semi-antagonistic attitude toward contestants than many game show hosts. “I just want to give you guys money,” he says at the opening of the first trivia round in each episode.

Torpey readily admits that he comes “from a place of real privilege,” having his entire undergraduate education at Colgate University financed by his parents, and he didn’t fathom the extent of the student loan crisis until he met his future wife, while he was pursuing an acting career in New York City. When Torpey booked a gig in a major ad campaign for Hanes, the couple finally had enough money to pay off his wife’s debt. “I felt so embarrassed that I didn’t really appreciate what she’d been doing,” he says. “I just saw her hustling and making it work, and I didn’t appreciate what it is to carry that debt around with you every day, and to have it affect every single decision in your life.”

Contestants who crush it on Paid Off can pay off their entire student debt, which for participants in the first episode was as much as $40,000.

"You should feel a little uncomfortable," host Michael Torpey says of his "Paid Off," where guests compete for money to relieve crushing student debt. truTV

It took another eight years for Torpey to go from that revelation to creating Paid Off, as his acting career developed in the meantime. He’s still best known for his role as sadistic prison guard Thomas Humphrey on Orange Is the New Black, and working on that show helped inspire him to create something socially relevant. “The game show to me made a lot of sense because it was a great juxtaposition of an absurd counter to an absurd crisis,” he says. “We can take the bells and whistles of a game show, and then still remind everyone that we’re here because of a very depressing set of circumstances.”

Torpey reminds audiences at the end of every episode that 45 million Americans struggle with some amount of student debt, and he encourages viewers to contact their representatives to advocate for solutions. He makes a smooth transition from game-show host (he cites influences including The Price Is Right, Let’s Make a Deal and MTV cult classic Remote Control) to social advocate. “I wanted the contestants who were coming on to have a good time,” he says.

Paid Off is certainly a good time; it’s entertaining and funny, and part of a broader trend of comedy and variety shows that directly tackle social issues. “I do think there’s something about laughing at a subject before you really make your way through it,” Torpey says. At the same time, he’s after more than just laughs. “You should feel a little uncomfortable about what we’re doing,” he says, “and that the best course for these people to pay for their education is currently a game show.”

Paid Off airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on TruTV.

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