Like its namesake, Netflix’s Clickbait invites skepticism and disdain for its obvious misdirection. The new thriller is swarming with ridiculous bait-and-switch twists and red herrings, offering very little else. Created by Tony Ayres and Christian White, Clickbait spends no time developing its characters, and even skilled performers like Betty Gabriel and Zoe Kazan fail to liven up the subpar scripts. The series offers perfunctory commentary on the issues it tackles, including those suggested by the series title, like fake news, the existence of online mobs, and cyber fraud.
The eight-episode drama centers on the kidnapping of high school physical therapist Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier). In short order, a video of him holding a sign that reads “I abuse women. At 5 million views, I die” is posted online. The investigation into his disappearance and alleged crimes begins to unravel the “nice guy” impression of him held by his family, friends, and co-workers. Each episode is from the point-of-view of a different character, including Nick’s sister Pia (Kazan), his wife Sophie (Gabriel), Ben Park (Abraham Lim), a reporter covering the case, and Roshan Amiri (Phoenix Raei), the detective investigating the kidnapping. Their relationships with Nick and insights provide all the clues about his personality, because there is no episode from his perspective.
Through this format, Clickbait attempts to depict and critique how people can base their judgments on rumors, headlines, or what others might think about them. Pia, Sophie, and Sophie’s two boys have a tough time adjusting to horrendous new facts they learn about Nick pertaining to secret dating profiles and affairs, which potentially negate the man they’ve known and loved for years. Clickbait struggles to explore the fascinating concept of the power of manipulation on social media. The show just scratches the surface of serious issues like catfishing, mental health challenges, and even the #MeToo movement. Instead, Clickbait chases after the next game-changing revelation, each getting more unbelievable and bizarre, to the point that the ultimate reveal in the finale, “The Answer,” goes far beyond suspending logic for the sake of a TV show. The ending is so bizarre, it rivals that of another Netflix limited series from earlier this year, Behind Her Eyes.
Pia and Sophie are inevitably the two leads but they are extremely one-dimensional. Pia’s mission is to convince everyone her brother is being framed, even as her own faith in him slowly dwindles, while Sophie’s is to protect her children from internet trolls, and evade the media camped outside her house at all times. Before Nick’s kidnapping, they’re shown to be at odds with each other, fighting in front of the whole family, but no real reason for their rivalry is provided. Instead, we get two women arguing over petty things like shoes in the house or giving a juicer as a gift. While they manage to find common ground during the ordeal, the show rarely dives into who they are outside of their frayed bond with Nick. Their own past, professional lives and big romantic decisions take a backseat. Clickbait is a tragic waste of Gabriel and Kazan’s talents, sticking them with boring, repetitive beats for its entire duration.
Jessie Collins stars as Emma Beesley, one of Nick’s possible secret affairs, and gives one of the more moving performances of the show. The fourth episode, which follows her own tumultuous journey, is the best of the lot, demonstrating the potential Clickbait has to make strong points about its themes. Instead, just as it’s getting shockingly interesting, the story pivots to pretzel-shaped twists and cliffhangers instead. Because Nick has been abducted, Grenier hardly shows up on screen except for flashbacks, which is truly for the best. It’s a chore to watch the Entourage actor, even in seemingly gut-wrenching moments. Raei gets the most to do as Detective Amiri, who gets more of a personality and background than Pia and Sophie—barely so—but his performance packs no emotional punches.
For a brief moment in episode five, “The Reporter,” it certainly feels like Clickbait might just dig deeper into its themes, as the perspective switches to journalist Ben. He’s determined to lead his network’s coverage of the case but the prospect of losing out makes him viciously proactive, much to the annoyance of his partner. The show botches its best opportunity to actually examine clickbait by turning Ben into a stereotype with “breaking news syndrome.” Even the episode about Nick’s son veers into the disastrous Kim Bauer storyline from 24 season two category. Clickbait wants to send powerful messages about the dangers of social media in the digital age, but the hackneyed writing and unfathomable reveals can’t save the show from the irony of being nothing more than an intriguing title.