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Nine Seasons In, Catfish Reflects the Savvy of Its Audience

How MTV's long-running reality show has kept so many hooked.
  • Nev Schulman and Kamie Crawford host Catfish's ninth season, premiering tonight on MTV. (Photo: MTV)
    Nev Schulman and Kamie Crawford host Catfish's ninth season, premiering tonight on MTV. (Photo: MTV)

    When it premiered in 2012, Catfish: The Series was one of the more tantalizing premises MTV had ever found for a reality series. By virtue of the fact that he'd been a victim of catfishing himself (per the 2010 documentary on which the show is based), host Nev Schulman could empathize with those who might have fallen for a grift, thus helping to soften the concept's creepier voyeuristic qualities. But he also knew how to lead a team to investigate the authenticity of online love. (Co-host Max Joseph, the other half of Schulman's team, departed the show in 2018; Schulman is now joined by co-host, Kamie Crawford.)

    Upon its premiere, it was the perfect combination of morbid fascination, guilty pleasure, and genuine human interest, and what's more, it was instructive for anyone who conducted any part of their social life online (so, basically, everyone). Still, it was a premise that should have lasted one season, maybe two. There are a finite number of outcomes to a typical Catfish scenario, after all: either the purported catfisher is someone the victim knows; they are a complete stranger who catfishes as a hobby; they are exactly who they say they are, full stop; or they are exactly who they say they are, but with a few careful omissions. The "victim" may choose to continue their romance, they may remain friends with their catfish, or they may walk away angry. Every story seems to follow one of these paths.

    Complicating matters, once everyone knew the show existed, anyone receiving a call from MTV inviting them to be part of a "documentary series about online relationships" ought to have been able to connect the dots. And even if they weren't appearing on the show itself, once the term "catfish" became part of the vernacular, how were people still falling for these ploys in the first place?

    Surprisingly, though, the supply of catfishers and catfishees has seemed to remain bottomless. Each new social networking platform, from Snapchat to Tinder to TikTok, brings a new flourishing ecosystem of fake profiles and budding virtual relationships, ensuring that MTV could continue to find fresh, compelling love stories (and "love stories") featuring relatable, memorable people. Anyone who's seen even a handful of episodes has their favorites: the poor guy who remained convinced he was BFFs with the real Katy Perry, the guy who got catfished by his own cousin, the "medium" who convinced a girl she'd had contact with the girl's deceased father. The show has not only thrived for eight seasons and counting, it's spawned two spinoff series and numerous compilation specials, and today it kicks off its ninth season.

    The show's continuing appeal should, by all rights, hinge on preserving the element of surprise, but while Catfish does occasionally throw a curve ball at its viewers, the surprise is only one ingredient in the recipe to its longevity, and it's no longer the most crucial one. Put another way, Catfish no longer cares if you understand how its sausage is made.

    Just as a lonely singleton chatting with a too-good-to-be-true online paramour might start spotting inconsistencies, anyone who's watched more than a few episodes of Catfish can't help but spot the cracks in the show's purported "reality." To cite a frivolous example, the uniform sparseness of every subject's "living room" makes it obvious that most episodes are filmed in Airbnbs, to the point where the hosts have mostly stopped maintaining the artifice. More important to the fabric of the show, however, nearly everyone knows by now that the show's production team doesn't begin sourcing its stories by seeking out people who suspect they're being catfished, but by throwing out a net for the catfishers themselves.

    The secret to Catfish's success may be that not only doesn't it ignore its audience's powers of perception, it's begun to riff on its format in ways that directly speak to their savvier viewers. In recent years, the show has frequently revisited new exploits by repeat catfishers, and it's even featured Schulman himself as a subject after he was (allegedly) catfished a second time. The message: even if you know where it's going, you'll still enjoy the ride, and you might make a few unexpected stops. It's a message that hews close to that of the original film. Back in 2010, we knew Nev Schulman was being deceived, but following him as he arrived at that conclusion drove the narrative.

    While the webs Schulman is now helping untangle are usually nowhere near as complicated as his original one, there's still something about feeling two steps ahead of the people onscreen that's terribly addictive and oddly reassuring. (That best friend taking a keen interest in helping to solve the mystery? That's a big red flag.) Not to mention the fact that whenever the series does produce a total blindside of a reveal these days (as it occasionally does), it lands even harder.

    The term "catfish" itself, per the film that spawned the series, comes from a fishing technique whereby a predator fish is stored in a tank with cod to keep them active and fresh. So it's no surprise that occasional format shakeups and a shift in its objective have kept Catfish's viewers from getting complacent, even as the content of the tank stays largely the same. After all, that's the Catfish way.

    Catfish returns with new remotely-produced episodes tonight at 8:00 PM ET on MTV.

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    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Catfish, MTV, Kamie Crawford, Max Joseph, Nev Schulman