ON PAPER, the premise of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show sounds like think piece–bait. Two handsome men — one a younger, sympathetic optimist who believes in the power of love, the other a salt-and-pepper-haired cynic who follows him around with a camera and his eyebrows raised — travel across America, helping people who believe they’ve fallen in love online to connect with the objects of their affection IRL. Everyone has Facebook and a phone, and everyone is lying about something.
Identities! Technology! A new era! Millennials! The thing practically writes itself — that is, unless you’ve seen a few episodes. The compulsion with Catfish is to ask, “what new thing can we learn about ourselves from watching this show?” but really, the answer is: not much. Love is not new; nor is lying for it, and Millennials didn’t invent the concept of wanting what you can’t or don’t have. Our greatest contemporary inventions are all just new and more complicated ways to be lonely for and about each other, at speeds that once seemed unimaginable. To that end, every piece of art I’ve ever loved is about the loneliness of other generations, but I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing that constitutes as nuanced and complex and problematic and perfect a document of what it means to be an alive human (alone, longing, wrong) right now as Catfish. And like all great art, the show doesn’t solve the mystery; it just shows us how we get there, again and again.
Per reality show standard procedure, every episode of Catfish plays out pretty much exactly the same. Nev and Max are hanging out in a hotel room when they get an email from someone who has been talking to the person of their dreams online for (x weeks/months/years), except the person of their dreams won’t show their face on Skype or meet up with them in the real world. Nev and Max hop on a plane and meet up with the victim (hereafter the catfishee), who gives us a little more background on their relationship and blushes when they’re asked if they sext. Nev and Max then head back to their hotel (or sometimes a local café where they have a zany conversation with an uncomfortable barista) to dig up what they can on the catfish. Often, this simply involves Googling their name, their Facebook profile picture, or their phone number, but sometimes the investigations get more involved — the show’s producers claim that their sleuthing sessions, which are 100 percent real, sometimes take up to 10 hours. No matter how long it takes, though, Nev and Max always come up with something, and eventually head back to the catfishee’s home to scare them with what they’ve learned. Then they phone the catfish and convince them it’s finally time to meet up.
One of the most weirdly perfect things about the show is how unpolished it feels, especially in its first two seasons. The writing is repetitive, the transitions are awkward, important details are regularly skipped over or shouldered aside, stories lose their logic as they’re crammed into the super-rigid structure that frames every episode. However, once you’ve watched a few, these apparent oversights seem less like sloppy writing and more like small acts of mercy.
As reality programming has really come into its own in the past decade or so, we as viewers have collectively traded in the illusion of “truth” for the comfort of guaranteed entertainment. Everybody knows there’s always a script, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as the show’s still fun to watch. But not every reality show has a high budget, or a huge team of writers, or stars who are looking to catapult themselves into franchise-dom with good acting. The more needlessly contrived and awkward a reality show is, the better its chances of fulfilling the genre’s original promise: namely, that we’d get to see real, non-actor people getting severely and voluntarily emotional in all kinds of situations. On big-budget shows, the high drama’s all triple-rehearsed. The more frayed at the edges a program is, the better it captures people’s true weirdness through all the plot holes. They let in the light.
The best thing about Catfish, then, is its truth and its thousand-watt sadness. For all the show’s stylistic awkwardness, after you’ve watched a couple of episodes, its illogic and elisions start to feel less like a problem and more like the only things that let you keep watching without hurling yourself out of a high window. You can watch a marathon of Big Rich Texas and feel nothing but a vague desire to throw wine in someone’s face. By contrast, the more Catfish you watch, the closer you feel to the void. It is genuinely hard to watch people perform their sadness on camera the way this show asks them to, and its structural rigidity — the fact that it doesn’t let you get tangled in the details of any single story for too long — ends up building a strict border between you and the truth of the thing you’re seeing.
In Seasons 1 and 2, almost all of the catfish are resolutely normal human beings. The show tries to maintain this fiction that there’s something mysterious and dangerous about each of them, and the parts where Nev and Max start digging into their Facebook profiles and uncovering the truth about them are all scored with this cheesy bass warble that’s supposed to make us feel creeped out by the possibility that this catfish could be literally anyone. But even when there’s an extra factor involved (this guy was catfishing his catfish! This woman lent him money! etc.) in the end it’s always just someone you could have stood in line with at the grocery store today. A man who thinks he’s fat, a woman who thinks she’s ugly, someone who’s closeted or has a shitty job or a secret kid. People who are convinced that whatever they are, as they are, they’re unlovable.
No matter how hard the show tries to make these stories seem suspenseful or perversely thrilling, they’re all just small and sad and completely believable. Which is sort of the problem. A program like this is supposed to be entertaining, but Catfish kind of isn’t. Videos of puppies are entertaining; rich women throwing wine at each other is entertaining; seeing the loneliness and insecurity that most people, including you, spend their days and nights working hard to hold back or ignore, isn’t really. Catfish is just a TV show, but the truth of it is watching other humans go headlong into the blackness that our lives are built up against or in spite of: thin cities on a fault line older than we’ll ever be.
All that said, the show is changing. Max, Nev, and the producers all repeated in the weeks leading up to Season 3 that things would get “darker,” and that proved true. The show’s pulling back on the romantic angle and delving into more twisted territory — scam artists, stalkers, and the like. Nev (the show’s token optimist in past seasons) is getting edgier too, throwing people’s phones off of bridges and arguing with his producers on camera. There are a few reasons for this shift, some more obvious than others. Practically speaking, a show like this needs to move forward, move on. If Catfish were gunning for three solid seasons of nothing but Facebook-based lost-love cases, it certainly wouldn’t have made it this far alive.
But there’s something else happening here. As the cases the show takes on become higher stakes or “crazier” than the ones in its older seasons, it’s easier for us to reorient ourselves as an audience into a more comfortable position. Almost all of the episodes in season 3 have to do with fame: one girl falls in love with a guy who is social media-“famous” for his (stunningly terrible) band; another is promised a job by someone she believes is an artist on Kanye West’s label; still another is a celebrity unsettled by a Twitter stalker who creates multiple elaborate fake profiles to get her attention.
Other storylines have a more troubling self-reflexive angle. One woman dupes her cousin into thinking she’s a man he met on a phone sex chatline (!) and strings him along for three years (!!), ostensibly because he once called her a “fat-ass Kelly Price,” (!!!) but also because, as she later reveals, she considers herself the ultimate catfish and wants to flaunt her talents in front of Nev, Max, their camera crew, and the world. In another episode, a catfishee named John thinks he’s in love with a young woman he met in an online chat group for people with anxiety disorders, but it turns out that his girlfriend is just an acne-scarred card-counting internet troll named Adam who invented the character to keep John away from a girl in the group who he likes. On meet-up day, Adam reveals his identity under the fluorescent lights of Orlando’s saddest internet café, where he stands at the center of a circle of cameramen and proclaims flatly, “This is me. I’m The Joker. I’m King Catfish.”
These stories are bigger, crazier, and unbelievable in a way that the old ones (heartbreakingly) weren’t. When the stories were about love, we all stood — catfish, victims, viewers, hosts — on an equal playing field. Everyone has wanted to be loved, and everyone has done dumb things in the name of that desire. But people who want fame, who are delusional or deceitful in their pursuit of it — these are safe, unknown quantities. We can see them as dangerous, unstable, crazy, and doing so makes us feel secure. In love, we’re all equally deluded. With these new stories, for the first time, there are rules that we understand but the catfish do not. The line between us and them is clear. We can back away slowly.
In a recent interview, Max also said that “[b]ecause of the show, a lot of people are way smarter about not getting catfished. It fortunately and unfortunately has made it very hard to find stories” — hence, one assumes, all the fraud and psychopathy this season. But this, too, is a little hard to swallow.
It’s not that the nature of the game has changed. It’s never been hard to figure out if you’re getting catfished. If what we see in the show really is true, it still takes nothing more than a computer, a phone, some free time, and a little determination to at the very least figure out that your online correspondent is not who they say they are. It’s not like all that was keeping these catfishees in the dark before this show went on the air was the fact that they’d never heard of Google — after all, they were technologically adept enough to meet someone online in the first place. The catfishee is always, in some way, complicit.
Think about what it is to fall in love with someone who does not really exist — someone whose physical body has never intruded on your relationship with them, who has gone to ridiculous, contorted lengths to mold their “personality” to fit your needs and desires. A common refrain among romantic catfishees is that they’ve “never felt a connection like this before,” and of course they haven’t, because there’s nothing quite like dating an echo chamber. It’s no coincidence that most of the victims on the show are in the midst of difficult or transitional periods in their lives when they start up these online relationships — they’ve lost loved ones, been evicted or fired, fallen behind in school. These are horrible, hard things to deal with, and grief is difficult to see around. In times when life forces us to change or adapt, most of us find ourselves craving distraction and reassurance. We want to feel loved and we want to feel heard, and we want to forget why we need those things in the first place. Think about the last time you had an outsized crush on someone you barely knew. Sometimes you want to fall in love, but not with a real person, because real people are imperfect and their imperfection is a terror. They say dumb things, they work terrible hours at jobs they hate, they come from fucked-up families and watch TV shows you don’t like and fart in front of you. You need to make room for them in your own life, and sometimes you don’t have that room to spare. A real human is an anchor, but a catfish is a blank screen.
Episode 5 of Season 2 provides a super-literal example of this: a man named Dorion finds himself torn between two women — his current, real-life girlfriend Raffinee, who he’s been with for seven months, and his online/on-the-phone paramour Jeszica, who he’s been talking to for two years. Dorion has gone through some hard times in his life and at present he seems a little shiftless, not totally trustworthy. But Raffinee thinks the sun rises and sets with this dude. They’ve got matching shoes with each others’ names embroidered on the tongues, and the way she looks at him when they’re together should send a sharp pang through the heart of anyone who’s ever loved someone who didn’t deserve it. In the show’s first act, Dorion acknowledges that Raffinee is important to him — they do live together, after all — but even she understands that he needs to meet up with Jeszica once and for all in order to see if she’s what he “needs.”
When Nev and Max ask Dorion what’s so great about Jeszica, he talks about how amazing she is, how beautiful, how dedicated, how she just wants to “love and be loved.” She’s always listened to him, and she reminds him of his mother. It doesn’t matter that there is another woman in his life who fits all these descriptions, loves him unconditionally, and would clearly do anything for him; Raffinee’s greatest fault as a person and a girlfriend is that she exists. Eventually, Jeszica turns out to be a girl named Alexis who insists that while the pictures were fake, her love was real. She still wants to be with him, but once he’s face-to-face with her — once she, too, takes up space — Dorion hightails it back to Raffinee pretty quick. (There’s also a gender-swapped corollary to this story in Season 3, where a young woman named Solana is torn between her real-life boyfriend Danny and some guy named Elijah who she started talking to on Myspace at age 15. What’s eerie and a little sad about this is that while the details in each of these episodes vary, 90 percent of their dialogue is pretty much interchangeable — Solana talks about how she needs to know if Elijah’s the one for her, how nobody understands her like he does, and poor old Danny just hangs out in the background, waiting for her to come home.)
This principle of projection doesn’t only apply to romantic catfish/catfishee relationships. The catfish of Season 3, the stalkers and scam artists, are certainly more compulsive than the romantics of Seasons 1 and 2, and their actions more obviously reprehensible, but at the same time, every single one of these relationships still involves a catfishee who on some level wants to believe.
I don’t mean to suggest that any catfishee is at fault, especially when they’re the victim of fraud or harassment. What I am saying is that a person’s desire to be cared for can outpace their logic easily and often. When Nev and Max Google the scam artist’s name, they find a Facebook group dedicated to outing him, just as in Season 1 where they’d reverse-image search a picture of a victim’s online boyfriend and come up with 20 different profiles instantaneously. Nev and Max do this because they want to know the truth; the victim hasn’t already done so because maybe they don’t. What Catfish knows is that loneliness comes from all sides.
At the end of every episode there’s a catch-up session where Nev and Max sit down to Skype with both parties, a few months after filming has ended, to find out how they’re doing now. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the narrative that’s forced in these scenes is one of closure and redemption — regardless of how noncommittal the participants sound in their actual conversations, we see text onscreen that reassures us the catfish has shut down their fake profile, stopped spending so much time online, and started working out, that the victim has moved out of her parents’ basement, started school again, and found a new job. Everyone has to come out of this experience having learned something, with a renewed desire to self-improve. (This structure’s so predictable that it’s weirdly delightful when someone pushes back against it, like when they ask the card-counting Orlandian Catfish King what he’s learned from the whole experience and he draws a total blank. In these rare moments, Nev’s expression takes on the unique blend of superiority, offense, and disbelief of a guy at a fancy restaurant whose third credit card’s just been declined; any catfish’s failure to self-improve is a direct and personal affront to him and to us.)
These scenes are the most subtly important part of Catfish’s structure. Without them, every single episode would feel like a never-ending panic attack — but the fact that they’re so immensely, immediately comforting also serves to accidentally bring some of the show’s harsher truths into sharp relief. Closure is, in many ways, a myth, but it’s necessary here because it distances us from the fact that what motivates both catfish and catfishees to do what they did is in no way rare or foreign. The idea that a catfish has deactivated their Facebook account and taken up hot yoga is always comforting because it affirms that the process of moving yourself away from the core of your own loneliness is only ever easy and comfortable and productive, when really it’s anything but.
The only thing in this world more difficult than caring about other people is finding other people who genuinely care about you. It’s hard enough to find a job that pays your rent and doesn’t grind your soul down into a tiny sliver, never mind finding one where your experience and skills are valued, given weight or room to grow. It’s hard enough to find peers who can stand to be around you, let alone friends who think the things you care about are important and worthy of attention. Given these odds, it seems pretty much insane that any of us could ever possibly expect to find love, to find someone in this world who truly cares about who we are and where we come from and what we want.
But still we persist, because, what else? In this life, it’s totally possible — likely, even — that if you don’t try hard enough, you will end up completely and utterly alone. This is a fact, and it’s terrifying, and that terror is the catalyst for more of our decisions and actions than we might care to acknowledge. Loneliness approaches the void, and our awareness of its constant possibility is what makes us move, whether or not what we move toward is necessarily “healthy” or “good.” We work, we make art, we go on dates, we tweet, we drink, watch TV, get high, count cards, we call a phone sex line, whatever. We upload a stranger’s picture to Facebook. We answer a message from someone we don’t know.
The structure of Catfish is comforting because it forces the overwhelming sprawl of loneliness into a rigid and conquerable format. The harder the story is to watch, the more relief its conclusion provides, because by the end someone is always moving up and away from the version of themselves that let fear dictate its actions. But in the end, the stories always outstrip their bounds — there’s something about every single episode of Catfish that feels off-kilter, suspect. And with good reason. The fact is that trying to give these stories a beginning, middle, and end just ultimately shows us how little those terms actually matter in reality. Like it or not, life just keeps going, and loneliness is always a part of the package. No matter how great your commitment to self-improvement, you don’t ever get to shed your shadow. You can do yoga, see a therapist, make more money, drink more water, delete all your accounts, or throw your computer off the side of a mountain, but there are still going to be moments where you feel alone and afraid, where you make weird, bad choices because of that fear.
So much of our culture is about striving toward an impossible standard of self-improvement. So much of our living demands that we chase down closure, elide or attempt to erase the parts of ourselves that feel and fear the presence of the void. The best art is a panacea against the interminable anxiety this myth of easy self-betterment engenders: it gives us permission to be vulnerable and fucked up and afraid and imperfect, to empathize and push past ourselves. What Catfish does — accidentally, on purpose, or both — is offer us a wonderful, imperfect description of contemporary loneliness, a new angle from which to see ourselves and our mistakes. What we can learn from this show, it turns out, is that while we’ll always find strange, new ways to be lonely, we’re never really alone.