There is no way to talk about Catfish: The TV Show without talking about Catfish, the 2010 feature documentary from whence it sprang, so anyone who’s been meaning to watch the movie but hasn’t gotten around to it yet, and has somehow managed to avoid any spoilers, needs to bail on this review now. The movie, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, stars Schulman’s brother Nev, who is in an intense long-distance romance with a woman he met on the Internet but has never met in the flesh. At first, Nev is ecstatic to be getting phone calls and messages (“My body is craving your touch tonight.”) from Megan, a beautiful, young dancer-musician he met through her eight-year-old sister, Abby, a child prodigy and artist he befriended on Facebook. The movie purports to document the process by which Nev and his friends slowly realize the pieces of Megan’s story don’t fit together and he’s been had. The climax is a trip to Michigan where Nev, with the camera dogging his every step, learns that he’s actually been flirting with Abby’s married, middle-aged mother, Angela, who also created all of Abby’s artworks.
Many people have charged that Catfish isn’t real—that it‘s a “fake documentary.” The truth probably depends on your definition of “fake.” It’s hard to believe that Joost and the Schulmans really stumbled across the incriminating details of Angela’s deception the way they do in the film, and that they just happened to be filming while they did. But it’s easy to believe that the deception itself could have happened, and that the on-camera busting of Angela is real. She comes across as a nice, talented woman struggling with creative frustration and one hell of a midlife crisis, and her fumbling attempts to explain how things got so out of hand while still keeping her dignity are rather touching.
The movie is gripping and unpleasant, in about the same measure, because the filmmakers caught hold of something messy and painful, but don’t show much evidence that they have the sensibility to really handle it. Instead, they just exploit the situation for its inherent creepiness, shaping the material so that it has the feel of a found-footage psychological-horror movie. (Having made their names with this project, they went straight into directing a couple of entries in the Paranormal Activity series, which seems like a much more natural progression for them than, say, Joe Berlinger directing the sequel to The Blair Witch Project.) Its saving grace is the suggestion of sensitivity that Nev Schulman supplies. He seems more sympathetic and open to the infinite mysteriousness of human behavior than the guys behind the camera, and it’s a relief when he and Angela come to some kind of understanding, touched with mutual respect. (But even then, you can practically hear the directors giggling under their breath, “Wotta freak!!”)
Schulman doesn’t come off nearly as well in the TV spin-off, which is premised on the idea that his experience has made him some kind of expert of online romance, crossed with an “Internet detective.” “Now I’m ready for a new adventure,” he tells the camera, and his idea of adventure is meeting people who have Internet crushes of their own and tracking down the objects of their virtual affections. The TV show doesn’t have the same squirmy, nasty charge as the movie, but when Schulman brings a woman to Tuscaloosa, Ala. and they debate whether to knock on the door of the man she says she’s ready to marry but has never laid eyes on, the appeal is the same: It’s the suspense of wondering, Jesus, how bad is this gonna be? The woman gets cold feet and says “Something’s gonna go wrong. I just know it.” Schulman encourages her to go ahead, saying that if she doesn’t, then “you’ll never know.” This is the same guy who explains that he’s doing all this because “I’m a romantic. And I want to help people.”
The producers of the TV show have said that they won’t be following the train-wreck pattern of the movie week after week. Executive producer Tom Forman, the creator of the infamous reality show Kid Nation, says, “We’ve also uncovered some love stories. We found people who are exactly whom they say they are… We find people who are willing to get past an initial deception and really do make a connection in the end—in person and in real life.” Maybe, but the producers can’t have much faith that the audience for this show is here for the happy endings, because the debut episode is about a love connection that makes the plane crash in Flight look an afternoon joyride in the sky in Superman’s arms. The client Sunny has fallen head over heels with Jamison, a professional model who is studying to be an anesthesiologist; Jamison explains that he is taking online courses toward getting his medical degree, because he is such a successful model that his physical presence in a classroom would be too much of a distraction.
She adds that he’s also a writer for Chelsea Handler’s TV show. The most heroic thing Schulman does in the entire episode is keep a straight face when she explains that he writes, like, “all the cue cards.” Schulman and his on-screen cameraman-sidekick Max Joseph can’t help but suspect there might be something a little too good to be true about Jamison. For one thing, when they call the Handler show to confirm that he works there, the patient woman on the other end of the phone tells them that, because it’s an unscripted discussion-and-interview show, they don’t really use cue cards. Whenever a domino goes down, the soundtrack fills up with the same kind of ominous music that Craig Ferguson plays on his talk show whenever Secretariat is acting creepy. Long before anyone starts talking about heading to Tuscaloosa, it’s obvious that the best way Schulman can help Sunny is to take away her computer until she and reality become a little better acquainted. Instead, the show dives relentlessly, headfirst, into the inevitable scenes of extreme mortification, including one exchange in which Sunny and her sister get into a heated, jealous argument over which one of them really deserved to hook up with her imaginary friend.
Schulman doesn’t come across as a sadist. (By all accounts, neither did Ted Bundy. Just sayin’.) He does come across as someone who’s in over his head and is playing with fire—which, when he’s counseling someone like Sunny, is a serious case of the blind leading the blind. The confrontation scene between Sunny and her pen pal is as ugly as anything you’ll ever see on a TV system that doesn’t carry Videodrome, but at least it’s honest, in its messed-up way. It isn’t until the subsequent encounter, when Schulman gets everyone to make nice and agree that they’ve shared some kind of growing experience, that the smell of bullshit becomes bad enough to make your TV buckle. Schulman did his brother and filmmaking partner a big favor by supplying them with the story and leading man of their calling-card feature, and he’s done them another favor by serving as the face of this show. Directing Paranormal Activity 4 has never seemed more like honest work.