In 2010, Nev Shulman debuted his documentary, Catfish, which followed his journey to meet the girl he fell in love with on Facebook. Despite the marketing campaign for the film, which positioned it as some horror flick with a dangerous or paranormal twist, Shulman’s journey (SPOILER ALERT!) ended in a farmhouse with a middle-aged mother and wife who’d been creating false Facebook personas to stave off her own loneliness and boredom. It was an unexpected twist, for sure, but where audiences were expecting pure, radical shock and awe, we found our surprise coupled with something truly, deeply sad: a person whose life was so unlike the life they wanted that they felt the need to create another. When translated into a television show with a premise based up front on that emotional concept, the product is something that feels as if it has the momentum to move the discovery forward, instead of wallowing in the shock of the 180-degree turnaround.
The first episode of Catfish: The TV Show, focuses on Sunny, a young woman who’s in an online relationship with a male model in L.A. … who also works at Chelsea Lately and writes for the show … and also writes cue cards? What an overachiever! In truth, as most viewers probably guessed from the premise of the show, this wonderful, magical Skype-allergic RJ guy is actually an 18 year-old girl named Chelsea who started the account as a means of revenge against someone who bullied her on Facebook. The lie started to consume her because she felt like an outcast in real life, and her online model persona afforded her the means to make easy connections with other girls online as she explored her bisexuality. And that’s where the show truly manages to surpass its cinematic source material.
Whereas Shulman’s film was about his own experience, told in a firsthand way, this series takes Shulman out of the equation and lets him be a guide for the misled halves of these online relationships. Because he’s experienced this sensation and wealth of emotions himself, he knows exactly what to ask both the victims and the perpetrators to elicit the response that gets right down to the heart of it all: Sunny's search for a connection, any connection, and Chelsea's muddled self-exploration gone awry. What we find is more shocking than the film’s original surprise: the truth behind the victim’s reasons for believing the illusion and of course, the truth behind the fakers’ decision-making process.
The first episode finds Sunny fumbling over herself to make excuses for her fake boyfriend, even when Shulman comes forward with a wealth of information that refutes “RJ’s” story, including outlandish claims of emotional blockage when Shulman finds out RJ’s supposedly deceased sisters are still very much alive. Taking his own emotions out of play and letting us experience this phenomenon in an upfront and honest way makes it more honest. It feels like something that could happen to a friend or someone we know very well. It no longer feels like a detached incident blown up for the purposes of a money-making feature film. And in that way, it makes the emotional and mental gymnastics behind these events grounded and significant. These aren’t the problems of a filmmaker in a swanky office in downtown Manhattan, these are things that are happening to a guy who could be your brother’s best friend or a girl you know from the gym. It hits much closer to our own lives when we’re let in on the ground level.
Add to that the wealth of possible outcomes offered by the series and this Catfish suddenly offers something the film really couldn’t: a true exploration of the psychological effects of an online world that inherently allows for self-obfuscation. It’s an element that hits close to anyone with an online presence, because to an extent, we all do it. The anonymity of social media gives us the tools to craft how that community views us. And while few of us are likely posing as completely different people and having online relationships with complete strangers, the concept of using the medium to shift one’s definition of themselves isn’t all that inconceivable. We do it every time we untag an unflattering photo or contemplate six different status posts before sending them through the Twittersphere. Catfish takes that to an extreme, but to an extreme that exists in the real world.
Perhaps the film could have enjoyed this benefit if the big secret had been prefaced even a little, but it fell victim to the shock game. Luckily for MTV, this series has enough shock to draw a crowd, but finds its worth in what comes after each big reveal, each of which hit midway through the episode. While it's harder to watch, it's something that is far more valuable than some reality-TV-tailored moment, no matter how fun it is to yell things like "Oh no he didn't!" at your television.
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[Photo Credit: Jamie Cary/MTV]