When the Catfish documentary was released in 2010, it immediately came under intense scrutiny -- people were poking holes in the plot with the same fervor applied to dismantling Damon Lindelof's scripts. Was it all an elaborately staged ruse, or was the woman who pretended to be the love of Nev Schulman's life already aware that they were making the movie? How much was recreated for the cameras, or was any of it based in fact at all?
The phenomenon known as Catfishing is real, though, and MTV gave Nev Schulman and his "filmmaker friend" Max a weekly hour-long TV show where they travel around the country, helping people who are in online relationships finally meet the person they've fallen in love with. Regardless of whether you believe the Catfish movie to be authentic, there's definitely something more genuine about the show, however accidental. Earlier this year, following the conclusion of the first season, MTV put out a casting call for the second season of Catfish: The TV Show. The call asked for people who are dying to meet the person they've been having a long-term online relationship with (the Catfishees), but also sneakily called for the Catfish themselves to come forward. In another plea, Schulman and MTV ask for those people who have been living a lie and who want to come clean to get in touch with the show. This raises a series of questions about the integrity of the entire production, and suggests that perhaps some of these episodes are reverse-engineered. If the Catfish is contacting the show themselves, but isn't already friends with the victim, then how is MTV getting in touch with the victims without raising a red flag? But we'll get back to that in a moment.
Behind the smoke and mirrors of this reality series lies a kernel of truth. Someone is in an online relationship with a person they've never met, and Schulman comes in as a jack of all trades: he's a facilitator, an investigator, a peace-keeper, an audience proxy, voyeur and a therapist. It's baffling enough to consider that someone could be in a serious, long-term relationship with a person whom they've never spoken to over webcam (and in some cases, never spoken with over the phone, either), let alone met in person, but even more baffling is the victim's complicity in their own Catfish scenario. These victims never Google the person they've become intimate with, and they don't even know what a reverse image search is on Google, which is presented by Nev and Max as this amazing investigative tool. (In all fairness, I have some friends who had no idea what it was, either, so I guess it's not that unbelievable. I guess.)
But look at the flip side of the coin: Catfish: The TV Show is exploring a concept that is beautifully depressing -- how willfully naive we are for the sake of true love, and the lengths we go to in order to obtain those feelings of love and validation. For the victim, it's the former, typically born out of desperation and insecurities facilitated or exacerbated by painful past experiences. And in this modern age, online dating has become the norm. No longer do we court people in public when it's easier to hide behind our computers, which makes it easier to lie. Online, you can be anyone you want to be. Some people simply lie about the last relationship they had or pretend to be more confident and easygoing than they truly are -- they try to be everything they want to be or to hide the flaws that have caused them pain in previous relationships. If this new person accepts this version of yourself you've created, then they're also holding you accountable for it, relieving you of the burden of responsibility. That may sound horribly manipulative, but there's something psychologically honest about it, too: we try to build relationships with people who see us as the best possible versions of ourselves, and online dating allows us to create that version of ourselves before we've even met.
And sometimes, for the perpetrator, there's a deeper reason for needing to lie. In arguably the best episode of season one, Kya admits to having Catfished her online love, Alyx, but she eventually told him the truth and he accepted her for who she was. But then Kya suspected that Alyx was keeping a secret of his own -- as it turned out, Alyx was a transgender woman, who just began the process of becoming a man. But then something beautiful happened: Kya didn't care. Perhaps because she knew the painful necessity of hiding behind a lie to evade insecurity, to rid yourself of those flaws that ail you and give yourself a chance at love, even if it means you've trapped yourself in a lie that restricts you from ever having a legitimate, physical relationship. Whatever the reasons, these two had a connection that went beyond the superficial, and they had an incredibly moving happy ending.
But Catfish: The TV Show is a reality show -- and one on MTV, at that -- so of course there's melodrama and profanity, and a certain air of trashiness that was only heightened when MTV aired a reunion show at the end of the first season. They found the most outlandish characters from the season, stuck them in a room together, and started poking at the hornet's nest in a way that made Nev and Max visibly uncomfortable. But beyond any drama that is knowingly manufactured by the producers of the series, there is still that kernel of truth, the idea that someone is so desperate for love that they'd either create a fake online persona or fall victim to one, and it would be so easy for the show to frame its subjects in a way that elicits ridicule from the audience, but Nev and Max -- as goofy and cheesy as they are -- try to find the humanity behind it. We all know what it is to be hurt, jaded, heartbroken and insecure, and whether it's the Catfish or the Catfishee, these guys find some part of them with which we can empathize.
On last night's season two premiere, Cassie had been in an online relationship with a man named Steve who helped save her from herself following the tragic and unexpected death of her father. Cassie had been drinking, smoking pot and acting out promiscuously, and nothing Gladys (her best friend since Pre-K) or her mother said or did was snapping her out of it. But then she met Steve, and he showed her that she had value as a person and deserved a life so much better than she was giving herself. She met her full potential and went back to being BFFs with Gladys. As it turns out, Gladys (with an assist from her cousin Tony) was Steve all along. She created the profile in a fit of hopelessness to help Cassie, and while it damaged their friendship and destroyed the trust the two had built since they were little, even Cassie had to admit that she couldn't be that angry because "Steve" truly did save her.
The show is rife with artifice, for sure, from Nev and Max showing up to the homes of people who have suspiciously already been outfitted with microphones, to the moment when our hosts leave Cassie and Gladys alone to talk in a room with the film crew. There's also the moment when Cassie runs to the bathroom for some privacy, with her microphone still running. Are these the necessities of a reality show, or Catfish: The TV Show revealing its manipulative nature?
Those casting calls posted by Nev and MTV could allude to the manufactured nature of the show, or maybe they're just trying to approach this thing from both sides as best as possible by introducing us to the Catfish themselves and helping them on their journey to reveal the truth. Then again, we haven't really seen an episode where the Catfish is the main star... yet. It's likely that Nev and Max (and the show's production) have already been in contact with the Catfish or at least know exactly where to find them before the cameras even roll, which strips away some of the excitement of watching Nev and Max discover their true identities, knowing that it's not the first time they've looked over this evidence. But it stands to reason that not every e-mail they receive will contain such an engaging narrative, and some behind the scenes legwork prior to committing to any given story is crucial, even if that means some of the moments must be staged or recreated in order to sell us on the authenticity.
Arguments about the necessity of staging and artifice in reality television aside, these guys have created a show that's at times thoughtful, moving and poignant -- however accidental -- and among MTV's reality programming, Catfish: The TV Show stands out as the most honest and (inadvertently) sincere of the bunch.