"Not based on a true story. Not inspired by true events. Just true."
That was the tagline for the 2010 Catfish movie, a millennial mystery odyssey in which a young man falls in love with a carefully curated internet specter eventually revealed to be an actual human being with a complicated and problem-filled life. With its promise of a "just true" story, Catfish capitalized on a zeitgeisty cultural obsession: authenticity, if that word has any meaning left. It did for Catfish. Briefly. By stipulating that its story was neither based nor inspired by true events, Catfish suggested a capturing of the fickle deeper truth of emotional experience over objective fact.
For one season of MTV's Catfish: The TV Show that was actually true, but now, following the conclusion of season three, struggling to maintain viewership, the producers have inadvertently sacrificed the one thing they had going for them. Catfish has fucked itself.
At first the idea seemed original, the result of an intersection of cultural currents. For years scholars and pundits have debated social media's impact on how we interact, shape our identities, and sometimes create new ones. As an early exploration of the subject, Catfish yielded surprising and touching moments, such as the scene late in the movie when the protagonist asks his catfish to speak to him in the voice of her now-deflated assumed persona.
Despite Nev Schulman's smarminess, I liked Catfish: The TV Show much better than the documentary at first. Season one—from a storytelling perspective, easily the strongest—gave voice to marginalized and minority identities, communities, and love stories, rather than just paying lip service. With Nev and his trusty silver-haired sidekick Max Joseph, we traveled to unloved corners of this country that rarely earn mention in the popular imagination. For once, the popular gaze was shifted from the longing eye cast on wealth, fame, and metropolitan centers to the often-bleak, exurban, rural, and impoverished neighborhoods where people sometimes find solace in pretending to be someone else. These lives were presented with dignity and a minimum of judgment; MTV had managed to portray the desperation behind the catfish type without packaging it as poverty porn. The first season of Catfish skillfully navigated class, gender, and sexual identity like no other show on TV, and it did so with the closest thing to compassion it could muster.
In an early episode, we met Kya and Alyx, who had been dating online for years without meeting IRL. Initially, Kya had hidden behind pictures of another woman before revealing her true self to the surprisingly accepting Alyx, supposedly a hot young Swiss guy recently transplanted to Riverside, California. When they met, he was revealed to be Dani, a transgender man. What looked like a train wreck waiting to happen turned into a beautiful story of acceptance and love across antiquated gender boundaries, a love story that—for its brief duration at least; Kya and Dani broke up shortly after filming—showed our generation at its best and achieved the sought-after authenticity the documentary had failed to cultivate.
But the subsequent two seasons have revealed too much of the show's underlying cynicism.
The Catfish formula has yielded an after-show, the vomitously named Chatfish, a transparent ploy for increased virality. The recently concluded season three appeared to be a publicity machine for various MTV properties and a shallow attempt to maintain viewership. In one episode, Nev and Max aimlessly scour Cincinnati, providing plenty of striking images of the city's decay; in the end the proverbial Catfish turns out to be a vindictive cousin with a remarkable capacity for cruelty who actively sought the notoriety of appearing on the show. The shock tactics have been amped up.
The show's producers seem to have actively sought out internet-scenester catfish to populate the third season: In the episode that I would call the season nadir, two teenagers with lots of Instagram followers meet-cute at the guy's suspiciously heavily promoted concert—a scenario so perfect and devoid of emotional heft that it suggests the producers either didn't do their due diligence or more likely set it up with the help of a corporate sponsor or two. The falsity of the situation is never more evident than in the climactic mise-en-scène where the carefully styled Antoinette first meets Albert (a.k.a. T-Lights), primed to hit the small time, and surprise, surprise! He's surrounded by his photo-op-ready bandmates. In another episode, a faux producer gains a veneer of credibility from a profile on an MTV-affiliated website and is the victim of some unintentionally hilarious plotted virality when Schulman throws his phone in the Potomac.
In a third, a catfish whose pictures appear on hundreds of fake profiles turns out to be the real deal—a minor internet celebrity from Minnesota, who feels close enough to the object of his online affection to get massive matching tattoos the day after meeting each other, but is seemingly unperturbed by her decision to return to her boyfriend. Again, it's as if the producers are willfully ignorant or trying to pull a fast one, but what's even sadder is the show's loss of emotional depth; they give the kids a "fun" day at the local half-pipe and a pair of matching tattoos, without investigating any of the many (and bizarre) questions the episode has just raised about their relationship.
Gone is the focus on protecting and investigating the unconventional emotional support systems at the core of most Catfish relationships, as well as the frankly mind-blowing pairings featured on the first season, such as the working-class African American man tentatively exploring his sexuality through a relationship with a catfish he believed to be a pre-op male-to-female transsexual. Now we're back to chasing the monster down the tunnel with Nev, Max, and shoehorned-in C-listers like Tracie Thoms and Selita Ebanks.
In trying to keep up ratings by constantly upping the ante and expanding the operation, Catfish has continued to dismantle the only redeeming factor it had in the first place. It wasn't exploitative, but it sure as hell is now. The dignified voicing and celebration of emotional connection is gone in favor of whodunit plot lines. By comparison, MTV's other flagship, the Teen Mom franchise, has stayed far truer to its master narrative: showing teenage girls what utter hell raising a kid before you've graduated high school is. Sure there's a level of romanticism. The proverbial Teen Moms (most of whom are in their early 20s at this point) lead lives that could double as story lines on a daytime soap opera, but at its core Teen Mom is driven by the organic development in the girls' lives, so no matter how melodramatic things get they still have to be accountable to their kids. Teen Mom takes an interest in its subject. Catfish only revolves around one thing: Catfish. Where Nev and Max originally demanded accountability on behalf of Catfish victims, they now gleefully stage the confrontations.
Rewatching the movie after having followed the subsequent MTV show for three consecutive seasons left a bad taste in my mouth. The idea that Nev Schulman, his brother Ariel, and director Henry Joost—undoubtedly internet-savvy members of the upper echelon of New York hipsterati—were somehow incapable of seeing through Angela Wesselman-Pierce's (albeit elaborate) internet persona, with its transparent guise of generically sexy stock-photo cutout Megan Faccio is preposterous. It's much more likely—this is my speculation only—that when Wesselman-Pierce hit Schulman up on Facebook, the latter saw an opportunity to exploit the hot topic of social media, packaged in the oldest storytelling ploy in the book: the tale of the monster at the end of the tunnel, an effect strengthened by faux suspense and pull quotes comparing Catfish to Hitchcock.
Odds are that Catfish will continue on its current path to complete irrelevance for the sake of clinging on to a brand it is simultaneously destroying. And that's a shame. For one hot minute, Catfish was a successful and interesting TV show. And it was so in spite of itself.
Correction: A previous version of this article listed Detroit as the location of an episode. It was actually Cincinnati.
Follow Theis Duelund on Twitter.