The Telefile
Catfish:  The TV Show:  Not Exactly Punk’d

If you didn't see Catfish the movie, here's quick breakdown: An immediately hateable photographer "falls in love" with a person he meets over the Internet and drives across the country to see her, only to find that instead of the gorgeous young lady she claimed to be, she was an older woman with a far less perfect... well, everything. There was controversy surrounding whether or not the truly douche-y Nev Schulman and the filmmakers were falsifying parts of the story to make for a better movie -- and in my opinion, they probably were -- but honestly, none of that really mattered when it came to why Catfish was so fascinating. They never explicitly talked about it in the film, nor do they touch on it in the new MTV docuseries, but this quest to unmask people hiding behind social media -- or as the show puts it, "help couples who have never met in real life" -- reveals something about that Twitter hashtags and YouTube videos can't quite communicate: Society has seriously fucked us all up.

MTV sent us screeners for two upcoming installments, so I've now seen three episodes of this show. While each story follows the same premise as last night's "Sunny & Jamison," where we meet a person who has found the one but has never actually "met them" per se, not all of the signs of forgery as quite as obvious. (Come on: who is a model, a Chelsea Lately writer and an online anesthesiologist student?) And even when it is quite clear to the viewer that the person we're about to meet isn't who they say they were, the duped people on this show aren't quite as naïve as Sunny -- and I think that's important to note. Sure, the people on the other end of the screen have their own issues (which I'll get to in a second), but the fact that so many people immediately trust who they meet online is no longer a freakish urban legend that happened to a friend of a cousin, but something that happens all the time to people who are actually smart, decent and even skeptical. It's happened to me (in a much less significant way than the cases we see on this show) and to people I love and care about. And when it does happen, as Schulman and his co-star/investigator Joseph aren't usually there with cameras to reveal it all to you... but it's about as humiliating and schema-shattering as it was for Sunny. It brings into question what it even means to actually know a person and what a relationship even is, and that's just for the person getting lied to. It's so strange and overwhelming and unfamiliar that when it did happen to this young lady in the pilot, her first response was literally: "Am I being Punk'd?" And a whole 'nother story begins when the camera gets turned around.

Again, I will say that from a critical point of view, I hate Schulman and think he's horribly self-indulgent every inch of the way on this show. Why he and Joseph need to be filming and taking photos of their detective work with flip cameras when they have a film crew with them is so stupid to me that I can't not mention it. But despite being grating and generally terrible, he knows he's got something golden with Catfish and is well-aware that the stories he's sharing are relentlessly compelling, and on the bright side, this show is a tiny bit less about pulling the rug out from under people as I feared. I can't quite tell if Schulman is making a conscious effort to implicitly shine a light on the fact that as a society we have pushed people into believing that the only way they'll ever find love (or in some cases, just plain friendship) is if they pretend to be someone else entirely, but that's quite obviously the bottom line to each heartbreaking person revealed. There's so much subtext surrounding the shame of being different -- last night it was bisexual; in future episodes (and minor spoiler alert, here, but too important not to mention) it's being fat -- which Catfish doesn't actually address, but that a stunned viewer will see right in front of them.

In some ways, I wish we got to learn more about these people who make up fake Internet lives, but the way this show works, investigation turns into exploitation very quickly, and the obviously fragility of these "catfish" puts too much at stake. But how lonely must their lives be? How embarrassed are they by their own appearance, desires and actual realities? Again, this episode wasn't quite as guilty as future installments are, but when the reveal of the person behind the fake account is not conventionally "normal" or attractive -- especially when they're heavyset -- you can see the humiliation so painfully across their face. When Schulman does his check-ins a few months down the road, our offender has always made it a point to share that they've lost a few pounds, or in this case, found a new way to empower themselves... because after months of using social media to finally start expressing your desires -- that is, the perfectly normal craving to have a relationship with another human being -- after years of torment, something's got to change.

While you can probably watch the middle ten minutes of every episode just to see the investigation and reveal moments of Catfish, there is a reward in sitting through the whole thing, because there's actually quite a bit of positive payoff from getting to know both sides of the story. With Sunny and Chelsea, aside from watching the lies unravel and a few extremely uncomfortable moments of maybe borderline homophobia, you of course get to feel the reveal of Chelsea with much more empathy for Sunny, but also understand why Chelsea would create this other life. The "cyber bullies" ruining other people's lives on Catfish aren't quite as obviously evil as those in documentaries like Bully, and the show instead (ideally) teaches the viewer that bullies are a product of being rejected by society and their peers, rather than just a case of a few bad apples. And what's pretty touching about the "victims" we see on Catfish is that most of them seem really willing to keep up relationships with their "tormentors." I only wish it was hosted by It Gets Better's Dan Savage, who has proven he is well-equipped to help young people deal with their lifelong rejection, and not this team of guys who clearly... aren't.

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