Catch of The Day: MTV’s Catfish

Remember in 2010 when everyone you know seemed to be debating the authenticity of the new film Catfish?  RelativityReal certainly does, and that’s why they’ve created the new reality series airing on MTV; catfish: the tv show.  Hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph travel across the United States to help people who believe they are being “catfished” which, according to MTV’s website, means: “To pretend to be someone you’re not online by posting false information, such as someone else’s pictures, on social media sites usually with the intention of getting someone to fall in love with you.”  Each episode finds Nev and Max coming to the aide of an unfortunate “hopeful romantic partner” who cannot understand why the person they’ve been having an intimate relationship with online refuses to meet them in real life.  After listening to the aforementioned hopeful romantic, Max and Nev do some surface level research to discern whether the intended object of the romantic’s affections is legitimate or merely a ruse.  Using tools like Google image search and scouring the person’s Facebook page, Max and Nev are usually able to figure out whether the person is authentic or a catfish.  After revealing their findings to the hopeful romantic, Nev contacts the mystery person to arrange a face-to-face meeting.  As you might be able to guess, all of the potential partners to date have been catfish.  No one has been “authentic.”  The moment of confrontation, arguably the most vulnerable moment of each episode, when the hopeful romantic realizes beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have been fooled is exploited for all it’s worth.  Nev and Max select that painful moment as the perfect opportunity to transform from helpful detectives, to psychological experts, probing the hopeful romantic and the catfish for answers regarding emotions and motive.  Once sufficient emotional devastation has been captured on film, Nev and Max whisk the bamboozled hopeful romantic away from the wreckage.  More often than not Max and Nev arrange a sit down meeting between the hopeful romantic and the catfish in order to provide closure and answer any lingering questions.  The only thing missing from the ending of each show is a shot of Max and Nev riding off into the sunset, sheriffs of the virtual Wild West.

While it is tempting to dismiss this show as the latest in a long line of MTV reality slop, I would caution against a wholesale rejection of the show.  Though the intentions of catfish: the tv show may not have been to raise nuanced and difficult questions about virtual obligations, it has done just that.  As New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale aptly puts it, “What are the rights of the Internet liar?”  From the start catfish operates under the assumption that being a catfish is morally reprehensible and these people must be sought out and forced to answer for their actions, to an audience of thousands no less.  The notion that perhaps these people are embracing the anonymity afforded them by the Internet and exploring creative virtual alternative ways of being is never even mentioned.  We, as the audience, are offered a very cut and dry narrative: the hopeful romantic is pouring their heart out in the hopes of finding true love, and the catfish is a conniving trickster reveling in their deceit.  One is good; one is bad, end of story.  In order to maintain this black and white narrative it is essential that the hopeful romantic always be cast in a very favorable, and overly sympathetic, light.  The audience must rally behind this person because he or she is the torchbearer for the American dream; true love.  It is acceptable to show a clip of the person’s friends or family expressing hesitation about the online relationship because they do not wish to see their friend or family member get hurt.  It is not okay to even subtly suggest that this person might be complicit in his or her own romantic demise, or that there are steps this person might have taken to avoid their current situation.  Because the hopeful romantic must always be the one to root for his or her own lies go overlooked or excused.  For example, in episode 105 when Nev and Max first meet Jarrod he professes his love for the woman he knows as “Abby,” claiming she could be “the one.”  When Nev asks Jarrod how he will feel if the “Abby” they meet is not the “Abby” Jarrod thinks he’s been talking to Jarrod responds that his feelings will not change as long as the personality is still the same.  However, when Jarrod finally meets “Abby” (whose real name is Melissa) and discovers that she is not the thin, blonde woman he thought he was in love with, his feelings quickly shift and he regards Melissa only as a friend.  Jarrod’s is not the only episode to feature such a dramatic emotional shift; indeed almost all of the episodes to date follow a similar narrative which suggests that some lies are okay, and others are not.  It is okay, catfish tells us, to purport love for someone no matter what they look like and then renege on that claim if their actual physical appearance differs from the images they have sent you.  Suggesting that it is easy to love a thin, blonde, supermodel but less easy to love a more average looking person.  After seven episodes and counting, catfish shows no signs of slowing down or of altering the already predictable narrative.  Which asks the question: how many seasons of fishing should we prepare for?   

  2. Hale, Mike ‘There’s Always A Catch’ Nov. 11, 2012.

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