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Smug Life: Why Is 'Catfish' So Dumb When It Doesn't Have To Be?

Max and Nev, probably thinking about how terrible Internet liars are.
Max and Nev, probably thinking about how terrible Internet liars are.

If you're not in the habit of watching MTV's Catfish, which ends its second season Tuesday night with a new episode and a reunion special, you might be surprised by how many interesting questions it raises.

Of course, you might be even more surprised by how blithely it ignores them.

Catfish as a television show is spun off from Catfish the 2010 documentary, in which handsome smoothie Nev Schulman (the kind of handsome smoothie who's very into how handsome and smooth he is) fell for a gorgeous woman online and then found out that it was a ruse by a substantially older, sadder, plainer woman impersonating a version of her own daughter. A lot of people questioned the veracity of some or all of the events in Catfish, but that didn't prevent it from sparking a lot of conversation.

So MTV, of course, made it into a TV show where Nev and his friend Max — and Max's utterly unnecessary little point-and-shoot camera, which he carries around constantly but could be fired into the sun without affecting the show at all — go around and visit other people who are in online relationships to, the show claims, help them learn the truth about whether the object of their affection is what he or she claims to be.

The structure of any given episode is that Nev and Max meet the Fished Person, who is earnest and hopeful and in love. Fished Person mentions a few obvious red flags — they've never video chatted with the Beloved, the Beloved has canceled three different phone numbers, the Beloved asks for money, whatever. Nev and Max look meaningfully at each other, because they've concluded that This Sounds Fishy (pun intended).

And then Nev and Max do some sleuthing, which literally consists essentially of using Google and Facebook to poke around, much like you might if you undertook such a project yourself and had a fourth-grade knowledge of the internet. They track down the Beloved and take the Fished Person to meet him or her. Usually, one or more of the following things happens:

1. The Beloved is much larger than the photos suggested. (This is the case for probably at least half, if not three-quarters, of episodes, to the point where Lovable Or Size 24? would make a decent alternate title if they ever need one.)

2. The Beloved is actually male [or female] when The Beloved was believed to be female [or male].

3. The Beloved is socially awkward.

4. The Beloved is in some other way not at all what was advertised.

Max and Nev and the Fished Person spend a lot of time saying HOW DARE YOU! to the Beloved, and the Beloved weakly apologizes and pleads insecurity or fear or tragedy. Max and Nev cart off the Fished Person, who vows not to give up on love but, in most cases, is through with the Beloved.

The moral is always the same: Lying is terrible, and liars are a menace, and it's easy to be taken advantage on the internet, so make sure you use Google at least as well as a fourth-grader.

The focus is consistently — perhaps not unerringly, but consistently — on the Fished Person as victim and the Beloved as betrayer. Over and over, the same sadness comes over Max and Nev as they realize they must break it to yet another completely innocent victim that they are just too good and pure for this earth.

Here are the kinds of questions that are almost never asked:

Why were you so eager to believe that a person who had only what looked like modeling photos on her Facebook page was exactly who she said she was?

Why did you ignore every sign that this wasn't on the up and up, and do you think it's possible that you have an unrealistic set of expectations?

If this person had told you the truth about who he really was, and had shown you a real photo, would you have given him the time of day? If not, does that provoke any remotely interesting thoughts in you about how you process first impressions?

Would you have told this girl that your affection for her was contingent on her appearance if she had asked you? If you would not, were you not leading her on as well?

And this question is not put to the audience: This person believed her real self would be rejected out of hand, so she presented a false self. What do you think about the fact that she was exactly right that her real self would be rejected out of hand? If we all agree that this is in no way an excuse for lying, can we still sit with it and understand that it probably hurts to live that way, and that perhaps the desire to be loved overwhelmed the desire to be ethical, which is perhaps not as open-and-shut as Nev and Max suggest?

Maybe it's not surprising that Nev, whose entire bio is based around feeling victimized because his hot internet girlfriend didn't turn out to be as advertised, isn't much interested in turning things around on the Fished Person to investigate how their expectations and wants and small dishonesties allowed the entire situation to continue.

It's sad, though, that so often, the show has it right in the palm of its hand, the fact that Everybody Hurts, Everybody Cries, and so forth, and while it often allows the Beloved to make a sincere apology followed by a sort of repenting dignity (he's decided to stop lying forever, hooray!), it rarely takes any interest in interrogating how, exactly, a Fished Person winds up falling in love with someone who never was. Instead, it retains the smug sense that every heartbreak has a victim and a perpetrator, and while the perpetrator may apologize and make good, she'll be the perpetrator forever.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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