It could easily be the subject of an episode of dystopian sci-fi shows like Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone, but instead it's a legitimate TV show that's launched in the US.

The show, dubbed Paid Off, starts with contestants announcing how much student loan debt they owe. The figures are enormous, stretching into tens of thousands of dollars and giving a strong indication of how severe the burden is.

From there, the principle is simple: compete against the other contestants for a chance to wipe out your debt.

Speaking to the Atlantic's Derek Thomson, the show's host Michael Torpey admitted that the premise of the show is somewhat ludicrous.


"It's a show that shouldn't exist," Torpey said in the interview "When people see this as the best avenue for paying off their debt, it's crazy."

Paid Off follows the format of a traditional game show. Three contestants square off to answer a range of trivia questions. Categories often come with an education-related twist, such as questions on "ology" or surveys about the best job you could have in college.

Contestants - most are in their late 20s or early 30s - must be carrying college debt to appear on the show. (Some of their loads run as high as US$50,000.) Depending on how many questions the winner answers in a speed round, the show will pay up to 100 percent of their loans, with TruTV footing the bill.

Though the meat of the show is still comedic, Torpey makes sure the serious student-debt themes are never far from viewers' minds. He slips in a "super depressing fact of the week" in every episode and sometimes offers a bleakly political edge. "If you're just tuning in, ya, this is real life in America," he says before the commercial break in one episode.

The host also finds ways of working in the student-debt crisis in player banter. "Anthropology, that's the study of humans," he says to one contestant after she names her major. "So why do humans charge so much for college?"

The idea for the show took root when Torpey, a New York-based actor best known for playing the Season 4 antagonist Thomas Humphrey on "Orange Is The New Black," met the woman who would become his wife and learned that she carried a heavy amount of debt from her time as an undergrad at Barnard College and a graduate student at New York University. The couple struggled with the debt for years, until Torpey happened to book an underwear ad. They were able to pay down the debt and finally begin planning to buy a house and start a family.

Shortly after, he conceived of a game show that centred on the debt problem, enlisting the help of a nonprofit called Student Debt Crisis.

"I know what we are doing is a little ridiculous," Torpey said. "But in a way the show matched my family's story. The only way we could pay off student loans was because I booked an underpants ad? That's insane." He said he doesn't see the high cost of college as a left-right issue but just something that needs to be on the political agenda.


TruTV got involved after Torpey and the production company Cowboy Bear Ninja pitched the idea. Though executives acknowledge that the issue of student debt isn't necessarily must-see TV - in fact the idea of a game-show devoted to the subject comes with an element of the surreal - they hope the combination of trivia fun and social relevance will attract viewers.

"We're a comedy channel first and foremost," said Lesley Goldman, senior vice president of development and original programming at TruTV, which often targets viewers younger than age 35. "But we fell in love with this idea because of the unique hook of a game show taking the bite out of a student debt crisis. It seemed so incredibly innovative, relatable and timely."

The numbers are stark: The average cost of annual tuition at a private college in the United States - US$21,000 (NZ$31,000) - is astronomically higher than in any other country, three times higher than the next-closest country, Chile, where tuition is barely US$7,000 a year. That's in part why the average amount that Americans owe on their student debts (US$37,000) is higher than in the United Kingdom (US$30,000), Canada (US$20,000) and Germany (US$2,400).

And the problem is worsening: Outstanding balances of those holding the loans have risen more than 60 percent just over the last 10 years.

The issue ebbs and flows among politicians but remains a priority for many millennial voters, with tweets on the subject regularly going viral, including one on July 5 in which the poster noted paying off $33,00 but finding their initial debt load dropping only from $50,000 to $48,000 due to interest. As of Friday afternoon, the tweet had more than 200,000 likes, with many in the thread imploring lawmakers to do something about the crisis.

It's an issue that has also taken root in New Zealand, with the average student now leaving university $21,000 in the red.

Read more: Student loan debt 'balloons' by 37 per cent, with average student owing $21,000

According to numbers released last year, New Zealand students owe over $15 billion in student loan debt.

The burden of this debt adds further strain on younger Kiwis trying to save sufficient funds for a deposit on a home.

A 2017 report said that it would take a graduate an average of 8.4 years to pay off the $21,000 loan balance after leaving university.

- Additional reporting from the Washington Post