For a brief moment earlier this year, MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show was culturally relevant. Deadspin’s story about Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend posed questions, and by chance MTV happened to be sitting on the answer: He had been catfished. This stroke of luck led to a brief ratings surge for a series that was already doing well for MTV, but it also made it something other than the spin-off to a documentary. Despite the fact that the Te’o story feels like a distant memory at this point, it was all Catfish: The TV Show needed to get out of the documentary’s shadow and stake its claim within the competitive space of reality programming: In a revamped opening, Nev Schulman’s voiceover speaks of the moment when the idea of catfishing “was being talked about by a lot of you.”
Although “host”—we’ll get to those quotation marks in a moment— Schulman claims otherwise, Manti Te’o did not turn Catfish: The TV Show into a “legitimate” exercise free from the trappings of reality television manipulation. In an interview with The Wrap, Schulman replies to those who question the “reality” of the series, arguing “I need only to point to Manti Te’o as a case study to prove that this is a real thing. It’s happening frequently, and basically if you turn your cameras on and go out in the world looking for it, it’s there. We didn’t have to script it; we didn’t have to make anything up. It found us.”
Meanwhile, at the same time as catfishing had its cultural moment, casting notices and various reports confirmed that Catfish: The TV Show is just as fake as every other reality show: How can Schulman argue that catfish “found us” when they put out casting notices encouraging catfish to come forward? And how can Schulman suggest they make nothing up when that casting notice reveals they often cast the catfish as opposed to their catfishee, which means that Nev and his filmmaker buddy Max—filmmaker buddy is a technical term, I’m told—are often solving a mystery to which producers already know the answer?
Here’s the thing, though: I kind of love Catfish: The TV Show in spite of all of this. I wouldn’t contest that smoke and mirrors propel its storytelling, and I have some serious issues with the ideological impulse behind many of its episodes. Your basic episode of Catfish boils down to two privileged dudes traveling across the country with cameras teaching rubes how the Internet works, as much a documentation of Nev and Max’s antics as it is a documentation of the catfish and their victim. It’s why referring to Schulman as a “host” feels so wrong: There is a vanity to Schulman’s persona in the series, the opening clearly outlining how he believes his personal experience—documented in 2010’s Catfish—has made him an expert on something that anyone with a basic knowledge of how the Internet works could become an expert in within about a half-hour.
Nev and Max’s role in the series is that of facilitation, a role that can vary depending on the kind of catfish story they’re documenting. The stories featured on Catfish: The TV Show exist on a spectrum ranging from the exploitative to the enlightening. In some cases, the show exists to capture the lengths catfish will go to trick their victims and the naiveté that makes those victims such easy targets. In those instances, Max and Nev marvel at the psychological condition of the catfish, revealing their duplicity and putting it on display as a warning of sorts (which fits their often didactic treatment of the victim while uncovering the truth). It’s those stories that featured heavily in the drama-filled reunion show, which foregrounded those episodes that ended badly and framed the series in a similar light to MTV’s edgier reality fare.
That reunion show was a misrepresentation, as the series’ best episodes are those that aren’t really about conflict at all. Catfish: The TV Show is really a story about communication: For whatever reason, a catfish is unwilling or unable to communicate honestly with the person they’re interacting with. Those reasons are at the heart of the show, and often shift Nev and Max’s role in the story. While they can sometimes feel like voyeurs there to comment on the madness unfolding before them, they can other times feel like necessary buffers who, through their interviews and dialogues, help people come to terms with who they are and what their relationship to this other person means to them. The strongest episode in the first season, “Kara & Alyx,” had the twists and turns you need for the show’s various cliffhangers to work: Kara was catfishing Alyx, admitted to it, but then couldn’t help but think she was also being lied to. What she found was that Alyx was a transgender man who was born a woman and was mid-transition. The show became a window into questions of gender and sexuality, and their decision to maintain their relationship was a “happy ending” which still captured how complicated relationships can be within an online space.
“Cassie & Steve” fits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, exploitative and enlightening in equal measure. It presents Cassie as a victim of her willful naiveté, taking part in a long-term relationship with a man she has never met and whose story—a working rapper/producer who travels too much to see her—is so thin that Max is nearly jumping out of his shoes as Nev reads Cassie’s email. She admits she’s never Googled him, arguing that she didn’t need to turn into a detective given how real their connection was, and how much he saved her from a dark period—alcohol abuse, alarming promiscuity—after her father’s tragic death in Haiti. There’s never any doubt the show is setting her up for a fall, and when she eventually learns that Steve isn’t Steve we get the usual collection of expletives, tear-soaked conversations on the bathroom floor, and voyeuristic surveillance (the show is all too willing to let us hear what Cassie’s microphone recorded after she left the room to get a moment alone, for example).
However, this isn’t really Cassie’s story. Building on a formula developed in season one episode “Joe & Kari Ann,” the catfish is hiding in plain sight during the episode’s requisite “What do the victim’s friends think about his or her online relationship?” sequence. As Cassie’s best friend Gladys is talking about what Steve’s relationship meant to Cassie, and how she hadn’t been able to get through to her but Steve had, the whole picture fell into place (there’s a scrawled “IS IT GLADYS?!” in my notes). The episode evolves into a picture of a young woman who created a “perfect” guy to show her friend there are still good people out there, hoping to stop her from destroying her life. This is not the story of how Cassie got duped, but rather the story of how Cassie was saved, albeit through a process that irreparably harmed a friendship and led to deep psychological distress.
It’s a fascinating enough story that one can forgive its numerous sins. Whether it’s the voyeuristic documentation of Cassie’s suffering or the serious use of Shazam as an investigative tool, the episode’s posturing does little to hide how fake it all is. The show’s producers would have had access to all of the metadata and reverse image searches that Nev and Max “uncover” over the course of the episode, and Gladys’ convenient entrance into the narrative makes this a strong case for being reverse engineered (as in Gladys was the one who originally contacted MTV as opposed to Cassie). While it’s possible that Cassie, Max, and Nev’s reactions to the situation are genuine, there’s no doubt in my mind that the producers had this entire story pieced together before cameras started rolling.
All of those machinations keep Catfish: The TV Show from unfolding like an actual documentary, and there’s an argument to be made that any of the issues raised by Cassie and Gladys’ complicated situation would be better served without the dramatic act breaks, formulaic structures, privileged dudes with cameras, and fake investigations necessary to transform this into a reality show. However, taking Catfish: The TV Show on its own merits, I’ve come to admire its formula as a hybrid of social experiment and The Simple Life: Online Relationship Investigators edition. As Nev and Max are unable to use Shazam as effectively as they imagined, Nev turns to Max and says “You know what we have to do.” And then they say “Image search” simultaneously, like they’re in an episode of Bananas in Pyjamas, and the audience is playing along at home by yelling “image search” at the TV. It’s incredibly lame and at times risks trivializing the stories being told, but it’s also a bit of appreciated levity. I don’t take Nev and Max seriously, but not taking them seriously has become part of the show’s charm, and the show usually gives us a few moments where the two men leave the story so the catfish and their catfishee can talk things out on their own (albeit while surrounded by a camera crew).
Catfish: The TV Show is, not unlike online relationships, a tenuous exercise. It’s constantly toeing that line between real and fake, begging you to ask questions but hoping you won’t, lest the house of cards come tumbling down. But it’s also managed to tap into a phenomenon featuring stories that straddle the line between ludicrous and meaningful. The idea that Gladys would invent a fake rapper, seduce her best friend online, and convince her cousin to have phone sex with said friend to continue the charade sounds absolutely insane, but in the context of “Cassie & Steve” I could imagine a scenario in which a person would make those choices. While not every episode of Catfish: The TV Show manages to reach this meaningful conclusion, the potential for it to do so has turned watching the show into a worthwhile gamble; even if the only takeaway is another moment of sexual tension between Nev and Max for the pile, this is a compulsively watchable mess of a television show.
- Nev claims to be an expert in online investigations and doesn’t know the term “meta data.” Way to go, Nev.
- At one point during his conversation with Gladys, Nev suggests the possibility that she created Steve not to help Cassie, but instead because she was jealous of her new friends. It’s never really followed up on, but that’s a darker view of her decision-making.
- Gladys’ pink, flowery letters spelling out “Gladys’ Room” on her door were an interesting detail that turned this into a much less “adult” interaction, returning to the two young girls in Pre-K—a nice editing choice.
- The one narrative thread left unexplored: Tony the phone sex-giving cousin, roped into this deal by Gladys but who developed a real relationship with Cassie through his music. He gives a very sincere—if a little creepy—explanation of his actions to Cassie, but then he completely disappears.