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

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire January 18, 2013 at 1:24PM

"'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.
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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.

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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.

This article is related to: Catfish, Nev Schulman, Queer Issues, Television, TV Features, MTV, Catfish: The TV Show