In the interest of completing my posts in a timely manner I plan my picks several days in advance; this week I did the same.  I intended to write extensively about four really good series; they will just have to wait.  Unfortunately for my plans and intentions, I took my friends’ advice and watched MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show, became obsessed and now I can’t think about anything else.

A couple of months ago I was out to dinner with two friends who have very different television viewing preferences from my own.  We were discussing my new adventure as a blogger for the PD and they both suggested I give a program on MTV a try, “It’s called Catfish” one of them said.  As a proud member of Generation X, one who remembers the “real” MTV that actually showed music videos all day, I was indignant.  Furthermore, I am not a big fan of reality television, especially of the oh-no-you-didn’t variety.  I filed this suggestion under meh, and went about watching TV and blogging and forgot about their suggestion.

For some inexplicable reason the name of the program popped into my head last evening, I sat down in front of my television, grabbed my keyboard (I have a Windows Media Center PC hooked up to my TV, I don’t mess around with low powered streaming boxes!) and navigated to the Catfish page on MTV’s website.  All episodes are available for streaming (which is great), so I started with episode one.  I have yet to check the US Geological Survey site to see if my jaw hitting the floor actually caused a small earthquake, but I’m pretty sure it did!

Catfish: The TV Show is the brainchild of Nev Schulman and Max Joseph who made a documentary a couple years ago about Mr. Schulman’s own experience with a Catfish.  What is a Catfish you ask?  Well, it is one who uses Facebook, Twitter and other social media to create a false online persona, most commonly for the purpose of pursuing romantic relationships.

Each episode begins with Schulman telling his personal story of meeting someone online, falling in love and then finding out she wasn’t who she said she was, but they became friends so at least there is that.  He goes on to say that while Catfish: The Movie was about him, Catfish: The TV Show is about you (the you being other people who have had similar experiences).  The viewer is then introduced to an individual who has fallen in love with someone they have never met.  Schulman and Joseph then go about telling the story of the romance, contacting the second party, researching the story and then facilitating a meeting.

The first meeting is where the drama takes place.  It is heart-rending to watch; in one case a young woman who is clearly excited to finally meet her model boyfriend, whom she hopes will “rip” her dress off, discovers he is in fact an eighteen-year-old woman who has been deceiving her from the beginning.  This story is repeated over and over with each new episode and could become comical if it weren’t for Schulman and Joseph’s masterful storytelling and amazing ability to hold the awkwardness and tension of these situations in a truly respectful way.

Once the first meeting has taken place, and the shock has worn off a bit, the question is asked of the Catfish; why? Why do this? What reason do you have for this deception?  And, unsurprisingly, each one has what they consider to be a good excuse.  I was bullied.  I wanted revenge.  I don’t like who I am so I created someone I like better.  Whatever the reason, each one (for the most part), says they’re sorry; though, future behavior often indicates otherwise, as in the case of the Catfish who closed her fake account only to reopen it twenty-four hours later.

Each episode ends with a video call that takes place, with the exception of the first episode, about a month after the last filmed meeting between to two online lovers.  The host and his cameraman check in, ask some pertinent questions and then fade to black where they offer a few final notes.

I had so many thoughts going through my head while watching this program I could barely make sense of them and follow the action.  Part of me, the part that has a master’s degree in counseling psychology, the part of me that has sat in a room with clients who refuse to see the truth about certain life events or people, was empathetic.  I mean, how could I not feel for individuals who are simply looking for love; they just want to be held in esteem by another person, to live the dream of happily ever after.  Who could denigrate that?

Furthermore, that same part has a reasonably complex understanding of human behavior which gives me some empathy for those second parties, the Catfish, who perpetrated the deceptions documented in this series.  Life is hard and sometimes, especially when we are young, we make some pretty horrible decisions and then end up hurting other people; those bad decisions often haunt us for years to come.

Now that I’ve expressed the thoughts of my “higher road” self I can only say this: WHAT THE HECK? REALLY?  Maybe I was raised to not fall for ridiculous bovine excrement, but the suspension of disbelief that is required to fall for these hoaxes seems, quite frankly, of epic proportions.  Has no one ever taken a moment to tell these young people, more often than not, something which seems too good to be true is just that?  Maybe I was lucky, I learned that lesson watching Happy Days years ago when Potsie Weber had a secret admirer who turned out to be his friend’s younger (too young) sister; if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true!!!  Even when presented, early on, with some obvious inconsistencies in the stories of their online paramours, these people simply won’t see the truth.

The Catfish really get me too; their powers of self-justification are well beyond my understanding.  As I said above I acknowledge people have hard lives, and bad things happen.  But where does it end? For some it is creating an online persona that is a lie, and using that lie to lure people in; for others it is believing they have been so wronged it’s okay to do physical harm to anyone and everyone, to pour their rage upon the world.  Different levels, for sure, but I find both narcissistic and violent and in both cases their actions have the power to ruin lives.  Yes, I consider deliberate and directed heartbreak through deception to be a form of violence.  One of the truly shocking things, and what I feel proves my point about the Narcissism, is the simply brazen attitude of some of the Catfish at the reunion show; there isn’t a whole lot of contrition there.

If I have one complaint about the program it is that Nev Schulman is a little too nice in season one.  I’m getting ready to watch season two and I’m hoping there will be less Larry King and more Bill O’Reilly, or for that matter Oprah; she is just great at calling people on their BS.  Max Joseph, who is more co-host than cameraman, is a bit more confrontational, and I like that.

Finally I’m left thinking someone needs to really communicate to young people, these teens and twenty-somethings that live a fake life online, a real life is better.  I’ve been on Facebook and Twitter, and I know the lives of at least some of my friends are not nearly as fabulous as they would have their followers believe.  I often get the impression that, much like a politician kissing a baby, some individuals are seeking out photo opportunities to create a false impression.   Stop it!

Another analogy that rings true for me is that living a fake life in social media is like teaching to the test; it looks great on the surface but lacks substance.  Just go get an education, take that trip to the Grand Canyon, or do whatever else you dream!  After all, to misquote a little bit of Shakespeare, it is better to have lived and lost than to have never lived at all.

I’m going to take a bit of my own advice; I’m putting down my smartphone, turning off my PC and meeting a friend for coffee.  Then I will return home to start watching season two; I’m addicted, so thanks Jennie and Alma.

For more on MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show click the image below.

– John Morton