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‘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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