‘Catfish: The TV Show,’ full of heart
MTV series unites folks who have been carrying on online romances,
November 9, 2012
For years, regular folks have been allowing TV and movie crews to invade their personal lives, turning the rest of us into voyeurs. Too often, the regular folks embarrass themselves, and we have to feel guilty not only for invading their privacy but also for feeling superior to them.
The 2010 documentary "Catfish," which showed how the photographer Nev Schulman was seduced online by a rural Michigan woman named Angela posing as a much younger woman named Megan, never made Angela seem pitiful or alien. Her exposure felt cathartic, not humiliating.
In Schulman's new documentary series "Catfish: The TV Show," which premieres on MTV next Monday, Nov. 12, at 11 p.m., he finds people who have formed online romances and helps them finally meet their digital significant other in person. Like the movie, the show is suspenseful, moving and humane, a far cry from MTV's usual trashfests. Though most of the people we meet are deeply lonely, the episodes end on a hopeful note.
In the first of the two episodes made available for review, an overweight fast-food manager named Kim, who lives in rural Michigan, asks Nev to help her meet Matt, a man with whom she has been communicating for 10 years, since they were both in high school. Kim says that although Matt has always said he loves her, he refuses to let her come to see him or even Skype with him.
After Schulman and his crew, led by filmmaker Max Joseph, arrive in town, Kim confesses that she has been in two relationships while she has been communicating with Matt. Her current boyfriend even knows about all the time she spends with Matt.
Nev and Max do some online sleuthing and find hints that Matt may be different from how he appears to Kim. They contact him, admitting that they're making a show for MTV, and get him to agree to a meeting. The suspense is unforced but real.
Any more information would spoil the episode. Suffice it to say that viewers will be surprised by what Kim and Matt do and how that makes viewers feel.
In the second episode provided for review, a young divorced dad named Jarrod, who says he has always felt socially isolated, tries to meet Abby, the gorgeous blonde with whom he has been communicating online for a year and a half. Abby claims that she can't do video chats; the one time she was going to visit him, she canceled at the last minute.
Once again, Nev and Max visit, do some investigating, find some red flags and set up a meeting. Abby is far more nervous about the meeting than Matt was.
Although some of the revelations in both shows are unsurprising, the subjects nearly always act in unexpected ways. Unlike the self-made stereotypes in too many of MTV's reality shows, they become more complex the more we get the know them.
In the opening of each episode, Nev says that the idea for the show came to him after he began receiving emails from people saying they had a relationship similar to his in "Catfish." Although some have questioned whether he was actually fooled in that film, he's an empathetic mentor to the subjects.
Most of the subjects are working class and live in drab rural areas, so the scenery isn't telegenic. But the filmmakers use the main visual material — photos, status updates and text messages — to great dramatic effect. The same headshot can have a vastly different impact before and after the couple's meeting.
Although it's possible that "Catfish: The TV Show" will become repetitive, it stands up well after two episodes. If viewers are seduced, at least they know what they're getting into.
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