Every once in a while, a show comes along that you can't stop talking about because watching it makes you feel so weird. MTV is always trying to capture youth culture in a bottle, and it still occasionally succeeds. Jersey Shore featured one-dimensional personae who sometimes became real people, True Life is still riveting, and new seasons of Real World coexist peacefully with their documentary-reality spawn. Docu-reality has always been a bit of a misnomer — "reality" entertainment is conventionally staged, which undermines "documentary" claims of realism.
Somewhere between "reality" and fiction lies Catfish: The TV Show, whose finale aired this week. (Next week a "reunion special" will air, and the show has already been picked up for a second season.) Catfish: The TV Show follows Nev Schulman, the subject and cocreator of the 2010 movie Catfish, who tries to arrange for Internet couples who have never met offline to meet one another for the first time and films the result. According to the show's terminology, a "catfish" is someone who uses false information and/or pictures to seduce a stranger online.
Catfish plays like a procedural. It's padded out to an hour by having Nev (rhymes with "weave") interact with cinematographer Max Joseph and discuss the relationship they're investigating in that episode. As the show unfolds, it falls into a pattern that soon becomes predictable; some poor schmuck writes Nev about their infatuation with a stranger they have only ever talked to on the Internet. They are always blissfully naive about the potential shadiness of their Internet paramour. They tolerate pleas of broken webcams and little-known conditions that make meeting right now impossible, in exchange for vague promises of future happiness. The longed-for meeting is inevitably tragic. The hoaxer and their victim watch their online intimacy, often forged over months or years, dissipate the moment it hits real air.
It's unclear how authentic Catfish is. The show it constantly brings to mind is Cheaters, the syndicated hidden-camera show that's long been rumored to be scripted. Nev is like a junior version of Cheaters ex-host Joey Greco. He observes heartbreak, disillusionment, and the occasional flash of happiness with the exact same half-smirk. Adam Levine's performance as Nev on the SNL parody of Catfish was the first good argument for the existence of Adam Levine.
Dressed like a posh New York male, Nev journeys mostly to small towns, where he finds mostly pathetic people with rich Internet fantasy lives. Their backgrounds involve crime, poverty, and occasionally mental illness. It seems obvious that most of them get involved in catfish schemes out of loneliness, many to deal with secret sexual-identity issues. None of them appears to be rich. Finding out that Cheaters might not be real made me feel relieved about enjoying Cheaters, since it preyed on the unattractive (but likely universal) human desire for revenge.
Catfish doesn't make me feel bad and gross the way that, say, Fox's extreme makeover reality beauty contest The Swan did. But it doesn't make me optimistic. Even when Catfish sagas finish peacefully, there are never happy endings. No one is ever exactly who they say they are. The show is edited so that every twist and turn is dragged out, as Nev pretends to hope that it will work out for the couple, knowing full well that it won't, and that it not working out is the crux of the show.
I was trying to think of ways to make the Catfish process more sadistic; they could target senior citizens or the very ill. It shares the strange moralism of Cheaters: Since the world is so unfair and dishonest, one should mete out vigilante justice with more duplicity. Would I still enjoy Catfish if I knew it were staged and no real human feelings were actually getting blown up for sport, or is the sad fact that it's so addictive and entertaining precisely because it's so exploitative? Does knowing that Kate Upton nearly got hypothermia shooting the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue taint those pictures, or is the hint of life-threatening danger exactly what makes those pictures so arousing? No, that's just great boobs. Since Catfish participants willingly signed contracts and agreed to appear on the show, it's not pity that you feel for them, exactly. It's complicated but also very simple. You just hope they got paid.