Catfish – Why You Should Watch
Considering the runaway success of the original feature film Catfish, the subsequent Catfish: The TV Show has had a surprisingly muted reception on these shores. Three episodes have aired so far (MTV, 10pm Monday) and it has been compelling viewing. There is a problem though – Catfish: The TV Show has been pitched by MTV as nothing more than a series of dramatic ‘outings’ of online hoaxers, to the shock and humiliation of the victims who turn up expecting to meet their online soul mates. This promotional angle does the show a disservice, as it’s a much more fascinating and intimate exploration of online romance and deception than the TV spots would have you believe.
For anyone unfamiliar, the original docu-drama Catfish was a feature length account of (the now TV show presenter) Nev Schulman’s online romance that went very awry. There is great complexity and ambiguity to the exact story, but in simple terms Nev thought for a long time that he was talking to a gorgeous twenty-something blonde and her prodigiously artistic younger sister online. A few Google searches and one road trip later, he discovers that he was very much mistaken. This is only half the movie though.
The second half of the movie reveals Nev’s deceiver simply to be a depressed middle-aged woman with a vast amount of Facebook accounts. This might seem like a spoiler, but it’s really not – because that’s not the end. Far from getting angry and stomping off in a huff, Nev and his buddies make a sensitive but probing attempt to understand their busted hoaxer and it’s only when they actually get to know her that the movie comes alive. In a short and more compact format, this is where the TV show comes alive too. It gives an insight into who these serial hoaxers are and why they do it. We see where their stories conform to harsh reality and where they separate off into fantasy and deception. We learn their unfortunate stories and sympathise, maybe even empathise, with their plight – these lonely individuals that have given up on real relationships and retreated to the internet for a fraudulent rebirth as someone completely different. It’s no exaggeration to say that parts of it are heartbreaking.
We all know about the dangers of online relationships and the strange facets of human nature that can surface amid the anonymity, but seeing that anonymity actually lifted and questioned makes for a fascinating watch. It’s understandable that MTV wants to depict the show as a series of Punked-style reality wind-ups, such is the vogue of contemporary TV, but there is genuine human insight to be found here that proves far more compelling than simply finding out that a precocious online nymphet is actually a middle-aged man. What Nev achieved in the original film was nothing less than the capture of an apparition – an faceless online ghost that tricks and deceives at will, caught in a net and forced to explain itself.
Catfish: The TV Show is not about the ‘what’, but the ‘why’. It starts off hearing the stories of the bright-eyed suitors who just want the chance to meet the online man or woman of their dreams in person. It often ends with a sombre and absorbing tale of the wayward souls that just want a bit of affection and companionship, even if it is based on a lie. What’s even more amazing is how often a genuine bond remains between the two after all the furore dies down. Even if the person in the profile picture doesn’t exist, the person in the chat box does. He or she just isn’t the supermodel they claimed to be. It’s romantic. Sort of.