“Love Fraud” starts out like any episode of “Catfish” or “Dr. Phil”: a group of women admit to meeting a man through over social media or via various dating apps. He’s perfect. He’s a pilot, or an entrepreneur, or a businessman, and he’s able to lavish them with expensive dinners (like the Olive Garden), jewelry, and all the affection you’d expect from an ideal suitor. But soon things get weird. He says “I love you” after two weeks, moves in quickly, and proposes marriage faster than you can repeat those three little words back to him. Then, as soon as the women say “I do,” they’re heartbroken and literally broke. All they have left are questions: What just happened?
It’s a tale as old as time — made all the more prominent thanks to reality TV — but directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady want to tell us a different version of this classic con artist tale. It’s not about a group of women sitting down to warn others of the dangers of dating; it’s about a gang of women hellbent on obtaining revenge and justice by any means necessary. This broken hearts club is out to break some skulls.
In some regards, “Love Fraud” feels like a natural successor to Netflix’s runaway success from earlier this year, “Tiger King.” Both are filled with bizarre twists and turns, and both feature a loud, brash, colorful outsider at their center. But, really, “Love Fraud” is like “Tiger King” if you keep the entertainment and WTF-story, but remove the racism and animal abuse. Ewing and Grady give audiences’ a story as juicy as can be, but with an emphasis on the fears women face, and the way people manipulate their stories for their own ends.
The series is certainly compelling; it’ll be hard for those used to binge-watching their favorite docuseries to wait a week for each new episode. The first episode introduces us to the “victims,” but the term only applies in the sense that they were wronged; the women’s strength and refusal to succumb to a prey mentality is amazing. Tracy, Ellen, and Sabrina all have the same story about meeting a man who bilked them of thousands. They also met him the same way: via a website dedicated to the predator in question, Richard Scott Smith.
Smith, despite his wide smile, is accused of not just being a conman in the vein of something like “Dirty John.” He’s a manipulative man with a dark past of abuse and mental illness that will constantly leave you questioning how much nature or nurture played into his decisions. Regardless, he exploits a chink in the armor of modern-day dating: age. As Tracy, the first Smith victim we’re introduced to explains, once you hit 40, dating becomes a shot in the dark. You’re lucky to find a man who sees you as a person (or, per Tracy, find a man who has teeth).
Every one of the assembled women resists a victim mentality, and yet the societal fear of being alone — of being perceived as unattractive — looms over every frame. There have been plenty of movies and shows over the last several years to highlight how the patriarchy sells women a bill of goods. Women are mad, fed up, and tired. But in an era where it’s easy to see men get off scot-free for their actions, there’s a lot of catharsis that comes from watching this group fight back.
Much of that release comes in form of Carla, a female bounty hunter who takes on the Smith case pro bono. Carla steals every scene she’s in, from insulting a male colleague only to turn around and gracefully say hello to him, to being pretty candid in describing exactly what she thinks of Richard Smith — and those like him. Similar to Smith himself, Carla’s backstory is filled with violence and sadness. But where Smith uses that story as a crutch to explain away his bad deeds, it galvanizes Carla into dispensing justice against men who harm the vulnerable.
Much of the series is focused around Carla and the women tracking down Smith, whether through a rather comprehensive spy network they assembled online or by hiring private investigators. Equally balanced alongside that are interviews with Smith’s coworkers, high school classmates, and a woman named Lee who might still love him. Lee is the main voice, outside of Smith himself, believing there’s a “witch hunt” against a man who couldn’t be nicer. And it is here that “Love Fraud” seems to set up the house of cards under which we’ve been seeing men and women interact post-#MeToo. What does constitute a witch hunt these days, and if a conman doesn’t believe he’s bad, does that give him a free pass?
The series’ finale puts the ball in Smith’s court, and it is here that “Love Fraud” walks away with its most powerful critiques about men today. Where Carla advocates that the women need to find a “good country boy” with old-fashioned ideals, there’s more under the surface. For Smith, he believes he’s been wronged and even when caught in open lies there’s an explanation that, he presumes, should suffice. At one point he discusses our own President and how his social media presence shouldn’t be indicative of character. Whether this is sound reasoning is left up to the audience.
“Love Fraud” is a fantastic series built for anyone who has survived the last three years on social media. Where public and private persona start to meld further, the fallout is filled with lies, deception, and questions of whether we’ve really come that far in holding people accountable for their actions. Outside of that, it’s a deliciously fraught story — and you won’t want to miss a minute.
“Love Fraud” premieres Sunday, August 30 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.