Bolstered perhaps by the recent hoax scandal surrounding college football star Manti Te’o, the popularity of the MTV reality show Catfish has seriously taken off. But is the popularity of the show simply another viral reality show craze, or is there something deeper at work here?
Based on the concept of a 2010 documentary film featuring a failed attempt by art student Nev Schulman to meet his online crush – Catfish the TV Show profiles young people involved in online relationships with people they have never met in person, frequently exposing their virtual partners as frauds.
For the uninitiated, think of it like a slow-motion episode of Maury, with the same sort of “gotcha” reveals (minus the DNA tests) — except this time instead of exposing deadbeat dads, Catfish catches people lying about online love. Each episode is based on a tried-and-true reality show formula of endearing audiences to a naïve protagonist who suddenly has the shades pulled and reality thrown in his face – meaning there’s a lot of potential here for cheap theatrics and fake setups (especially considering that a network like MTV is footing the bill). And yet, if you spend an evening on twitter when the show is on – it’s not uncommon to see your timeline fill up with the sort of episode-specific banter and arguments usually reserved for script-based shows like Scandal or The Walking Dead.
The setup is pretty easy. Show host Nev Schulman fields emails from people who are in relationships similar to the one he experienced in the documentary film, contacts them – and does his best to get the people to meet in real life.
This of course almost always leads to the revelation that at least one (and sometimes both) of the online love partners hasn’t been entirely truthful with the other, or have taken advantage of the anonymous intimacy of the internet to pretend they are someone else entirely – reinforcing almost everything your parents always told you about online friendships.
Or to put it in more simple terms – in a recent episode this guy:
Thought he was in love with this girl
Who in reality turned out to be ..this gay man
This of course isn’t any kind of new story (especially in this day and age of social networking), but it’s interesting to consider just how much buzz the show has generated in a short time.
The show itself focuses mainly on the process of “outing” the truth, utilizing simple research techniques – but it stops just short of calling out its own lonely characters for not doing the same thing. Whether this is just a device to give the host and his partner more screen time (as it seems to be) isn’t immediately clear – but it does suggest what I think might be a deeper theme, despite the fact that it’s pretty much been the same kind of story every episode (hot chick turns out of be not-so-hot chick, hot chick turns out to be a man, hot guy from Switzerland is actually a girl who is beginning the process of a sex change operation).
Is love truly blind, or are people out there just so hungry to be loved in the way that they’ve always imagined that they are willing to blind themselves?
The show’s non-judgemental approach to relationship surprises involving homosexual and transgender partners is I think a part of it’s charm, despite the fact that it could easily be played for shock value. And yet it seems to push this whole idea of “real love” vs “idealized love” to an extreme edge, asking it’s participants (if you are able to accept the premise of it all) to consider just what it is about the other person they actually fell in love with in the first place.
It’s not unusual I think to meet people online and develop connections – but to ignore blatant red flags or warning signs such as people who won’t talk on the phone (or even in some cases would like you to believe that in 2013 they don’t own or have access to one) makes every episode almost as much of a cautionary tale as it is a guilty pleasure – but perhaps even more — what this show seems to specialize in week to week is questioning the idea of “too good to be true” love.
Here are people living in one place, in many cases appearing to be well-adjusted, attractive, and popular — choosing to chase something far, far away as an ideal. Almost as if that sense of their “ideal-ness” is a part of the appeal.
It’s an idea that seems to be bolstered by the fact that so many of the catfish attempt to portray themselves in idealized ways — using other people’s pictures, names, and even histories to create their characters from.
Lonliness can be a powerful motivator. The desire to be wanted and loved can make some people do extreme things, just as much as it can lead others to overlook what might seem to anybody else as clear warning signs – making them easy targets for manipulators, predators, or worse. And yet the show’s writers, producers, and editors go to great lengths to portray the characters more as victims of their own desires more than idiot rubes who have apparently never heard of Google image search.
But the question that seems to hang above all of this is perhaps what makes the idea so fascinating – just how far would you go for a love you believed to be real?
Have you ever been Catfished? And if not, what do you think is up with all these people who have been?