‘Catfish: The TV Show’ Is Making a Name for Itself, But Is Its Premise Unraveling?

'Catfish: The TV Show' Is Making a Name for Itself, But Is Its Premise Unraveling?

"'Catfish' the film was about me. 'Catfish' the TV show is about you," says Nev Schulman in the intro of the MTV docu-series he currently hosts, an unscripted show based on the hit Sundance doc of the same name in which he was one of the main subjects.

After a few days of press surrrounding the Mani Te'o online dead-girlfriend hoax, it's clear that there's another "catfish": "catfish," the verb.  And that "catfish," as a branding strategy, is really all about Schulman, too — and it's working. Take it from the paper of record, who published a feature linking the Mani Te'o scandal to what is now Schulman's catchphrase.  In the article titled online "In Te’o Story, Deception Ripped From the Screen," Mary Pilon writes:

A so-called catfish is the engineer of the false online identity, a reference to the bottom-feeding, whiskered water dwellers. Getting catfished is when someone falls for a person online who is not necessarily real. It can involve pictures, phone calls, social media profiles, text messages, e-mails and even phony friends or family members.

Many were introduced to this strange universe of digital dupers for the first time Wednesday when Deadspin reported that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, whose death provided an inspirational story line for the Fighting Irish’s triumphant season, did not exist. While the details of what Te’o knew and when are still emerging, the term “catfished” exploded online with Twitter hash tags created and Google searches soaring.

For internet commentators and those that have built relationships on the web over the years, this is hardly a new phenomenon.  In the '90s, many, like MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle, were celebratory of the possibilities allowed by identity play.  The New Yorker cartoon "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," first published in 1993, is such a popular meme it has its own Wikipedia page.

READ MORE: Controversial Doc "Catfish" Divides Sundance

But in an age of Google and Facebook's real name policies, online identity play left the mainstream.  This new wave, assumed to be malicious, is given few media representations. Most popularly, there was NBC's "To Catch a Predator," and now there is "Catfish."  And amongst a certain set, Schulman has succeeded in rebranding online identity play as "catfishing."

The intrigue behind the show is built on the work done by "To Catch a Predator" and the Facebook-and-Google-induced stigma against using assumed names or identities.  In popular thought, overweight, unattractive strangers — or child molesters — are thought to be behind unverified online relationships between strangers. 

Things are slightly different in the "Catfish" world:  In the film "Catfish," Schulman's online lover was not the young, virginal woman of his dreams; it was Angela, an older woman, the mother of special needs children.  In the opening credits to "Catfish: The TV Show," Schulman tells us that he actually became friends with his deceiver, while overseeing a program in which the two parties in a potentially untruthful web relationship are brought together and reality is, presumably, unveiled.

So far, in the eight episodes of "Catfish: The TV Show," when things actually play out, the deceived are either surprised to learn someone they know is behind the online profile or are eager to hear why their deceivers went through the trouble to set up a fake profile and develop an intimate relationship. To the "Catfish: The TV Show" guys' credit (while Schulman made the movie with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, he is making the TV show with filmmaker Max Joseph), they are eager to understand the motivation behind the deception.  At only one point does outright judgment come from one of the stars; in episode 7, when Schulman tries to figure out why a young man's friend was deceiving him, Joseph calls her out on being a bad friend.

Otherwise, "Catfish: The TV Show" is eager to contextualize the life experiences of the deceivers.  In episode one, a young bisexual woman has been developing a relationship with a nearby southern belle.  She uses the show as a chance to come out, and on camera, Schulman, Joseph and the deceived girl show compassion for the deceiver.  While her actions are framed as hurtful, the show seeks to get to the root of the young deceiver's motivations.

In another episode, a young woman tries to distract another woman away from the man she's sleeping with.  When the reveal occurs, the tensions are high, but Schulman and Joseph work with the initially cocky deceiver to understand what drove her to do that.  While the relationship between the two women was officially soured, there was no blame game.

There is, in fact, never really a blame game.  While Schulman and Joseph often stumble over politically correct terms for talking about trans people on the show, those narratives are not given the usual sensational treatment. A recent episode centered around a high school jock who was deceived into having a hardcore text-based relationship with someone who turned out to be a nearby gay man. While the jock's friends suspected it was a guy all along and poked fun of the main subject for it, the episode didn't allow the joking to go too far (though Schulman did provoke one of the friends to explain how he would feel if the young attractive woman turned out to be a gay dude).

There's deception in the act of catfishing just as in IRL (in real life) relationships. In the non-virtual world, people tell lies, big and small, to the folks they're involved with all the time.  Though people are brought to the show expecting to be just as shocked as they are watching something like "To Catch a Predator," the deception behind the catfishers has begun to feel quotidien.

Maybe that's not a bad thing. The tension between the deceiver and the deceived is always productively worked out, instead of being pushed into the kind of screaming match that might be more typical of the reality genre. Against "To Catch a Predator"'s penchant for accusation and entrapment, "Catfish" — set apart from any illegal behavior — seeks to understand the people involved without pointing a finger.  Watching "Catfish," you're reminded of the myriad ways people are pushed into loneliness and isolation, and Schulman and Joseph handle these moments carefully.

So while the cat is out of the bag, and most of these relationships are not as reprehensible as some might expect, "Catfish" was renewed for a second season. In at least one aspect, however, the future seems shaky for the show.  Any fans who apply to be on the next season will have seen all of the tactics that typically lead to fruitful evidence of deception — consumer tools like Google Image search or an insistence on Skyping — and so, how will deception be unlcear if Schulman and Joseph teach viewers weekly how to spot a catfish?

We'll have to wait until next season to find out, but for the moment, Schulman's profile continues to rise as he is brought into the unfolding Te'o drama.

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Comments

bong yang

Hi there catfish…. How r u today ???? … I have a little problem …. About four years ago I met this girl online and we talk for so long that we fall in love with each other and I do love her a lot but I want to know if she is real or a fake becuz she give me this name Carrie Marie Jones but she is from the UK and I’m from Minnesota please I need to meet her in person but every time when I send her the money to come she doesn’t show up as she promise and she told me she loves me to but I really need to meet her in person …. Can u help me … Give me a call at 651 373 8461

Kay Bowman

The episode of Catfish that had a third co-host, Selena,I was not impressed. I watch the show for Nev and Max and I felt it took away from them. Is David Spade in such a bad situation that he had to call at that exact time so that he could get a quick head shot to promote himself. And the after show Max was not even there. Please no more quests on the show! Thank you!

dpg

Why does the idiot film the other dude with a little camera when the episode is already being recorded?

John C.

Why do people make up fake Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc.? For attention. MTV shows up at your door? That's big-time attention, and some fame to boot. That's the entire premise behind reality TV: attention and fame – oh, and money ("Since I'm so outrageous, maybe MTV will pay me to star in my own 'reality' show!"). The days when MTV used "The Real World" to highlight still simmering racial tensions (Julie and Kevin in the first season) or the discrimination faced by HIV/AIDS afflicted members of the LGBTQ community (Pedro and "Puck" in the third) are long gone. THAT was reality TV as it should be. Also, shows like this downplay the fact that sometimes it's not lonely people trying to escape to a fantasy life, but hardcore criminals trying to steal money from their victims – and when they are uncovered, they are inclined to murder those who have revealed their scheme, not admit their lies and ask for forgiveness on camera. At least all those other "Housewife"-style shows are harmless. Shows like this could be harmful.

Juli

I friend people i haven't met, but on common grounds and interests. I have never been comfortable with the idea of actually meeting them in person. I have made phone calls to some of the people i have friended. I even suspect the dating sites on the internet to be suspicious. Safety first.

Juli

Have any of these people get into fist to cuffs when they find out the person they were talking to wasn't who they thought they were???

Racquel

i think its a great young start. be careful of negative things. like subside. murders. Im hope that will not happen. the guy that met the guy was nice. please go more indepth. counseling. etc…

Sydney

This is the thing I hate about shows like this is if you are on an online dating site and an attractive female, you will get tons and tons of messages from men and they all want your number or to skype you right away to find out if you're real. It's just impossible for some girls to reply to every good looking guy on these sites with personal information or "evidence" right away.

These shows make people paranoid. It does make sense if the person never ever talks to you, and you have an online relationshiop but so many guys now demand a phone call or skype when meeting online it's just impossible to meet their requests without sounding like a snob who talks to lots of guys.

shauna

how can you get rid of boys from your backs

Jessica

Go to catfish.com/Facebook there is a website they posted on one of their status for people to register for the show. It don't come right out and say it. Well it kinda does. But I just got on there and it was the last status they updated

Jodi

How can you send your story into the show to see if they want to use it. This for sure happened to me. Please let me know.

Dusty K

The next installment of the Manti Teo saga is on Katie Couric tomorrow. 3:00 or 2:00, depending on where you are.

Dusty K

The next installment of the Manti Teo saga is on Katie Couric tomorrow. 3:00 or 2:00, depending on where you are.

kiara byrd

Hello Nev, I love ur show. I watch every show lol. But the reason im writing u is because I have been with my gf for almost 9 months now and we've never met. Im gay by the way. She's so amazing. We are in love. She's pregnant right now wit out baby. She got a fertilization done at the hospital. But we plan to get married and have a family but we've never met and we want to I need your help. Mi email is kiarabyrd67@yahoo.com. hope to hear back 4rm u

MrOyVey

This shit show & the terrible recent Paranormal Activity sequels – it's sad how the team behind the original Catfish completely sold out.

RW

Very deceptive headline for this article… good job "catfishing" readers on this one. ;)
You don't even get into the second part of the headline, "…But Is Its Premise Unraveling?" in this article. That premise isn't even addressed or analyzed…

RW

Very deceptive headline for this article… good job "catfishing" readers on this one. ;)
You don't even get into the second part of the headline, "…But Is Its Premise Unraveling?" in this article. That premise isn't even addressed or analyzed…

Lori kroplesky

Hello….i would like to share my story with yous and maybe get your assistance in my search. First in 2012 I received a message on WAYN.com from a Army man Shane Taylor, we talked for a long time and he wanted me to meet his family when he got home. he said he was overseas. i said ok. after several weeks he asked me to send him a cell phone. i said no i cant why dont you buy one i dont have the money. he eventually asked me for money . i got suspicious and started checking other women on his web site and they also were asked for money. he found out i talked to them and blocked me. i went to my space and looked under people and there was shane taylor in uniform . i tried to contact freinds on his list but nobody called back. i tried to call family in kokomo indiana and i found no one. i checked out his pictures and saw a calendar on the wall that said shane and emily so his ex wife or wifes name is emily. he also had pictures of his children on there but they have recently dissappeared as i put on my facebook wall do you know this man he is an imposter and is using this army mans picture and the picture of his children to try to extort money from women. he then threatened me. he said if i didnt stop i didnt know what all he could do. i was not scared. my biggest fear is that this imposter is killing his name and using his children. i dont know if he was even over seas fighting and something happened to him and he is posing as him. i want to find the real shane taylor or family and let them know what is going on i have pics on my phone and on my computer i kept some records. i hope you can help me find him as i have done all the investigating i can from here. if you can help me please call 717-606-7673 cell or home 717285-0630 thank you for any help you can give me i want to meet him…lori kroplesky

Nikki

This show is sooo sad…heartbreaking.

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