‘Catfish’: Did It Jump the Shark?


As time goes on, reality television continues to skew the line between what is real and what is not, and then, there is Catfish. It is based on a 2010 documentary film of the same name. In the film, a young producer named Nev Schulman sets out on a discovery to uncover the identity of a woman that he meets through social media. On the television series, which airs on MTV, Schulman, with close friend and photographer, Max Joseph, helps other people who have attempted to meet those they have connected with online, usually in a romantic sense. On Tuesday, a Vulture magazine article, which was promoted by MTV as well, gave some insight on the show and in turn, cast a light that was probably unintentional: Catfish may not be what it sets out to prove. Furthermore, they could be “jumping the shark” by airing an upcoming episode featuring a known Hollywood actress.

The show began its third season back in May. Schulman and Joseph promised viewers that they would expand past romantic relationships and uncover various scenarios where people are “catfished”, or tricked. On Wednesday, the show will go somewhere it never has gone before and help a celebrity, actress Tracie Thoms. The episode uncovers the truth about a “super fan” named “Sammie” who attempted to get close to her.

Each episode usually plays out in a particular fashion: Schulman and Joseph receive a message from a person who is having trouble physically connecting to a person they have met online. In the upcoming episode, Thoms, who appeared in the movie adaptation of RENT and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, is hoping to find “Sammie.” The young girl reached out to Thoms, and tried to help promote an independent film that Thoms filmed last year.

“When you’re doing independent movies,” Thom states in the episode, “you really depend on your fan base [for promotion]. And she was just awesome.”

The story takes a dark turn when a friend of “Sammie’s” is brought up. “Reese” was also a deep fan of Thom’s and wanted to be involved in helping promote Thom’s film. However, some time later, “Reese” suddenly dies of cancer and “Sammie” is devastated. Through some sleuthing of her own, including a closer look at the picture “Sammie” took of a funeral banner, Thoms discovers part of the truth: there is no funeral being held there for a girl named “Reese.” After exchanging the information, she has with the show’s host, Schulman and Joseph head off to help Thoms with her case.

This is where things become questionable. In the Vulture article titled, catfishHere’s How MTV’s Catfish Actually Works, it explained how every episode is produced, from start to finish. One of the first things to take into account is that apparently, Thoms is not the one who contacted MTV or Catfish. It was “Sammie.”

Marshall Eisen, the senior vice president of MTV news and documentaries, explains that a lot of the time, the person who is the “catfish,” is the one who reaches out in the hopes of coming clean.

“It’s not always the case,” Eisen says, “but it probably happens more than people realize.”

If that is true, Catfish has already broken a huge unspoken rule in reality television: the show can make a star, but the star cannot make the show. Granted, it is not always true: shows such as The Surreal Life, from the early 2000’s, and The Simple Life starred people who were already famous. Even in those rare cases, the “names” involved are usually looking for a second chance in Hollywood (such as the celebrities who compete each season on Dancing with the Stars).

Another section of the article explains that while all people who appear on camera must sign a waiver, it does not always mean the person who signs it has to cooperate. There has never been a moment where a subject involved in the story has not appeared on camera, but Eisen knows that it could be a real possibility that the “catfish” does not want to be revealed.

“They’re real people and they’re exposing themselves,” he says. “We’re never going to force them to do it.”

One cannot always tell if someone will back out after the “discovery” has begun. However, it does seem crass to put people who have been hurt emotionally back into situations with no real closure. Interestingly enough, there is a bit of a double-edged sword: there are articles throughout the web where past participants of the series have expressed that they had not dealt with their Catfish situation in years. They have already seemingly healed, so what is really going on throughout those episodes in particular?

As viewers follow through each case, they uncover parts of the story right along with Max Joseph and Nev Schulman. Every discovery is met with pure shock by the duo and in turn, the viewer is just as shocked by how tangled a person’s web may be. However, there is not anything to truly uncover. It turns out that Joseph and Schulman are actually repeating what the producers of the show has already done. Before the two hosts even get their fingers on a case, producers already know the true story behind the Catfish.

Admittedly, it makes sense. Producers need to know what is going on first in order to properly edit a show in the direction they want it to go. However, it also enforces that the two most popular faces behind the Catfish name are glorified window dressings. In their defense, Schulman and Joseph are admittedly kept out of the loop, probably to allow the shock to play more legitimately on camera. Nevertheless, it raises another question: if, for some reason, Joseph and Schulman hit a roadblock or two (or more), will the producers step in and nudge them in the right direction or will they simply allow the “search” to continue?

catfishOn an earlier episode, this season, Carmen, the cousin of a man named Antwane, contacted the two hosts. A man named “Tony,” whom he met through a phone chat line a number of years ago, had duped him. Not having much to go on, other than a cell phone number that had since been disconnected, they eventually uncovered an abandoned house where “Tony” might have lived. After realizing that there was nothing more to be done, the hosts and Antwane were thrown for a loop when Carmen suddenly confessed that she had been “Tony” all along. Apparently, Antwane insulted his cousin at some point, and Carmen wanted revenge.

If the producers knew all along that Carmen really was “Tony” and we are to believe that most first contacts come from the deceivers, then what kind of show is Catfish setting itself up to be? Many of the people who “catfish” others seem to do what they do for attention. Knowing that the deceivers usually reach out to MTV and not the victims directly, it almost makes the show a springboard for allowing people who hurt others to get a little more flash.

Past episodes of Catfish have garnered a lot of attention for their participants. Until recently, a couple from season two of the show, Derek and Lauren, seemed to be the first and only real Catfish success story. Thanks to Schulman and Joseph, the two met in person after communicating online for eight years. However, love in the real world was a lot harder for the two, and they recently parted ways (they remain friends, according to Schulman, Joseph and MTV).

Truthfully, it is the fault of no one that they could not make it work out. They obviously gave things an honest and fair chance. However, with one positive story coming out of what seems like a bunch of negatives, it does bring down the value of what the show attempts to be from all avenues: good TV. In honesty, we know what we are getting when it comes to most reality television. Just because it is happening at a particular moment does not mean the moment in particular is genuine.

Keeping up with the Kardashians re-shot the proposal between Kim and her now ex-husband, Kris Humphries. The Real World has changed from the stories of seven strangers who have their lives taped, to putting seven people who suspiciously look like models into one house. Catfish plays as if were the last of somewhat real reality television. These are real people with real problems, hoping for a real solution. Now, it all feels a lot more fake.

Tracie Thoms using this platform to tell her story also makes the show a little rougher to digest. If “Sammie” was the one to reach out to MTV, not only does she now have more time to shine, but also MTV reached out to an actual actress to appear on their show. There are probably other means available to Thoms to help uncover who “Sammie” really is. Although there is no disrespect intended to her (even the rich and famous have a right to close a chapter in their personal world), it makes a genuine connection to the show a bit more unattainable.

There is no real proof that Catfish will “jump the shark” with the airing of the episode. The release of the article in close proximity to the episode’s airing could just be coincidental. Catfish will undoubtedly continue, and Schulman and Joseph will continue to “hunt” down the truth. However, with so much truth being twisted in “reality television,” a few viewers are feeling a bit of the sting from the bite the show has now openly delivered.

Opinion by Jonathan Brown

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