Spoiler alert: This piece contains spoilers about the movie Catfish and also Catfish: The TV Show. Read at your own risk!
In the early days of the internet, when AOL start-up CDs arrived in the mail with regularity, we were all too aware of the dangers of online strangers. Even in those old AOL chat room when someone asked, "A/S/L?," one could never truly trust the results. But as time marched on and people loosened up, we all began routinely engaging with strangers. By now I think it's safe to say that it's not even a little bit weird to meet people online and then have them in your reality. We all love the internet, and we use to not just to read the news and watch YouTube, but to find true love. For some, that means braving the muddy waters of OkCupid or eHarmony, for others it means joining an online gaming community or message board or whatever. It seems like we're all alone, behind our computers, reaching out for attention.
In 2010, Nev Schulman was the subject of the documentary, Catfish. The film followed Nev as he uncovered the sad, ugly truth behind his online love, Megan, who turns out to be Angela, a middle-aged wife and mother in rural Michigan living a tough life. It's gut-wrenching to watch as Nev confronts Angela to get answers on why she lied, gut-wrenching and absolutely fascinating. After the docudrama was released, Nev allegedly began receiving emails from other kids in his predicament, all asking him to help them discover the truth about their online romances. MTV saw dollar signs and Catfish: The TV Show was born.
I caught a commercial for Catfish: The TV Show sometime before Thanksgiving in 2012 and was immediately obsessed. Captivated by the motivation of the "catfishes," I consumed every episode of the first season with zeal. Each episode revealed another incredible (or ridiculous) circumstance where someone had fallen in love online but were really being scammed by a liar. The most unique example of this is the guy in the south who thought the woman he was talking to was trans-- he revealed to his friend that he was cool with it and planned to continue a relationship with her and when she turned out to be a woman he was stunned and forced to face his sexuality head on. It was a real nail biter. It was also really, well, uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine there are so many unique cases of intense, romantic relationships where the people have never met or seen each other in real life. It's harder still to watch someone's heart break on television when they realize they've been had. The reasons people gave for catfishing varied. Unfortunately, many of them had to do with physical appearance, specifically weight issues, or people just wanting to mess with someone. Sometimes people catfished their own friend, just because they were too shy or scared to be honest about their feelings. All the while, host Nev Schulman and his filmmaker friend Max Joseph are standing by, dishing out Dr. Drew-style advice with hipster-chic intonation.
It freaked me out. It was like watching a weird dating show but it was also like couples therapy. I could not look away. When the Manti Te'o faux girlfriend scandal hit the news, I felt vindicated. "See?!" I told my friends. "This does really happen!" I was flabbergasted, though that may be because I'm lazy. I mean, two cell phones (and two cell phone bills), multiple Facebook profiles and personas, infinite status updates, juggling text messages, and those long, long nightly phone calls? That seems exhausting. Anywho, the show challenged audiences with some serious questions, both moral and practical. Is it smart to trust those you meet online? Is it okay to lie to someone you met online? And are there any exceptions in either case?
Though the circumstances varied, the end of each episode of Season One had something in common: the catfish acknowledged what they had done and expressed remorse for hurting the other person so deeply. In most cases the apology wasn't enough to save the romance or even form a friendship but the gesture was comforting and appropriate. It worried me how easy it had been for these people to trick the innocent. It was so exploitative and unkind, but I secretly enjoyed the brief journey into the mind of a bully (or a coward, whatever). I also appreciated the fact that this was happening far away from me, in places like Mississippi and Maryland, not in San Francisco.
Season Two began a few months back and of course I tuned in. I had hoped that it would get even more crazy the second time around but unfortunately, Season One's popularity seems to have poisoned the well a little. In Season Two, each time Nev and Max call the catfish, the person on the other end of the phone is well aware of the show and who they are. From go, Season Two felt less authentic, that is until last week's episode.
Last week Nev and Max met a really sweet girl from Iowa named Jennifer. She'd been bullied throughout her adolescence (likely because she was more interesting than her classmates) and used online gaming communities and message boards to find friends all over the world. The internet has served her well so far, so it did seem odd to her that her online friend Skylar, a computer tech student at SF State, refused to video chat with her. Jen starts college at the end of the summer and has really been coming into her own lately. As part of that, she wants to know who she is talking to before she allows her feelings to get too invested romantically. Skylar and Jen talk almost every day and their texts read like a cheesy modern romance novel. She does not come off as naive or stupid, just a nice kid looking for a friend.
It takes Nev and Max 10 minutes to discover that Skylar is not who he says he is. They call him on the phone and though he initially resists, Skylar agrees to meet Jen in San Francisco saying he really wants to meet her in person. It's not shocking that Skylar turns out to be Bryan, an SF State student whose major I didn't catch. It is shocking that Bryan is not the least bit apologetic for the hoax. In fact, he told Max that he had been giving Jen a gift by leading her on and making her feel appreciated. There wasn't much left to say after that. For the first time in my Catfish viewing history, the catfish-er admitted to having absolutely no emotional or romantic feelings for the catfishee. It was just entertainment for him. He claims he's done it to lots of girls, to "brush up on his game." Personally, I still thinks he needs some work.
That one stung. That episode proved that not only are these people real, they live among us. And with that I deleted my Tinder app, canceled eHarmony and unfriended all strangers. I'm not taking any chances with that kind of humiliation and heartbreak, I'll stick to real life for that mess. Even though it will inevitably be tough to maintain the authenticity and emotion of it's first season, I'll remain loyal to Catfish: the TV Show. Please don't judge me.
Catfish: The TV Show airs Tuesdays at 10pm on MTV.