Most of us create selves online, particularly on our Facebook pages. We take a selection of facts, mix in a dollop of aspiration and fantasy, choose photos super carefully, and then post press releases about our interests, our activities, our animals, our children, and, of course, most important of all, the weather. We’re all fronting, more or less, in a way.
But some people aren’t just adapting themselves for social media; they’re full-on frauds, actively working to deceive their followers and “friends.” The 2010 documentary “Catfish” was a good portrait of an online hoax, as it chronicled how a guy went to meet a woman he’d fallen for through Facebook, only to find out that she was an invention by a middle-age mother. Now, that guy from the movie, Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, has developed a weekly TV series for MTV that brings together people who’ve formed intimacy online but never met in person. Called “Catfish: The TV Show,” it delivers a different wired love story in each hourlong episode.
One of the strengths of the series, which premieres Monday night at 11, is that it explores both the pluses and the minuses of online affairs. In the two episodes available for review, the men and women have genuinely formed strong bonds. Somehow being apart has loosened them up, so that they share their most private feelings through Facebook messages, texts, and phone calls. It’s a contemporary version of pen pals. It seems crazy, falling hard for someone you’ve never been in the same room with, and yet it happens to very sane people. One couple, Kim and Matt, stayed connected for 10 years, beginning when they were 14, through major life events including the suicide of one of Kim’s loved ones. Still, Matt pulled back every time Kim suggested meeting in person.
The minuses of digital romance? Deception, most obviously, which is what some, not all, of the episodes of “Catfish: The TV Show” will reveal. Without spoiling any one story line here, I will say that sometimes a close Facebook friend doesn’t want to meet up because he or she looks extremely different from his or her photos. Being extremely overweight, in particular, is a common theme. While a date across the table from you in a restaurant can lie to your face, an online friend can lie and present evidence to support the lies at the same time. “That’s the crazy thing about the Internet,” says one of the women who duped a guy on the show. “You can be who you want to be.”
Another good thing about “Catfish: The TV Show”: The deceptions don’t seem especially evil, just as they didn’t in the “Catfish” movie. You can see how an online relationship might enable a person who has a good heart but also deep, driving self-esteem issues. Schulman and his filming partner, Max Joseph, shape each episode as a mystery, so that we meet the more eager partner in the romance first and then pursue the truth — and the first face-to-face — together. But they keep the emphasis on the psychological factors in each situation, and not on the big reveal. If the show were on network TV, it would probably have a colder format, with the mystery date behind a curtain or something. But Schulman and Joseph proceed with sensitivity, and they follow-up the big reveal with lots of personal talk with both subjects. They respect all the vulnerabilities they are uncovering.
It’s old news that situations on reality shows are artificially contrived, and it’s hard to know how much of that is true here. At points, Schulman seems to be doing online searches that surely were already done. Do people who are having online romances not Google each other? Do filmmakers not Google their subjects before filming? Schulman also tries too hard to accentuate the drama already embedded in the situations, with useless comments such as “Next time you come back to this house, you’ll be a changed man.” Down, boy. But still, despite the occasional artificial reality flourish, “Catfish: The TV Show” is a timely, engaging, and often poignant addition to MTV’s lineup.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew