Because the truth is, Manti Te’o is not the first or the last guy to fall in love with someone that wasn’t real. Photographer Nev Schulman is building a career out of his own fantastic story of digital love, and season two of his show, inspired by the documentary Catfish, promises to showcase many, many more people like him and Te’o.
The premise of Catfish: The TV Show is deceptively simple: people reach out to Schulman and his co-host, Max Joseph, for their help. They have fallen in love with online friends met through Facebook, forums, or dating sites, but, for one reason or another, have yet to meet these lovers face-to-face. Each hopes that Schulman and Joseph can arrange a meeting, partly to move the relationship forward and partly to quiet the doubts nagging at them. More often than not, the co-hosts dismantle the lover’s online persona in a matter of minutes. A quick reverse image search and a few phone calls is sometimes all it takes to poke holes in a story, and then the love story becomes an emotionally fraught confrontation as everyone tries to answer, “Why?”
But, throughout it all, there’s an intimacy that saves the show from becoming exploitative or sensationalist. These people, perfectly normal people, have not only opened up their lives to their online friends, for years in some cases, they even open up their hearts to Schulman and Joseph as well (and, by extension, all of us). The show is filmed on handheld cameras, lingering on profile pictures and faces as people confess how much they’ve invested and how silly it all sounds, in the same breath sometimes. The stars of each episode know the risks but they cling to hope, dreaming of love that will light up their otherwise average lives.
It would be so easy to laugh at their foolishness but Catfish never does. Schulman and Joseph speak gently, give hugs freely, and sometimes even get caught up in the romance of it all. In one of the later episodes of season one, Schulman and Joseph are so moved by Joe’s gentle personality and his love for his online girlfriend Kari Ann, a former beauty queen that he’ll gladly leave his quiet town for, that they begin to root for him to find a “happily ever after.” Can you blame them? Really, can you blame Joe, or anyone, for falling in love with a dream like that?