'Catfish' — How a Campy MTV Show Became a Cultural Phenomenon

MTV is no stranger to exploiting the naivete of young people. One could argue that the network even re-branded itself off the success of its reality TV programming. Since its initial foray into reality TV with the first season of The Real World in 1992, MTV has succeeded markedly in capturing, packaging and exploiting the excesses of youthful immaturity in ways that make most of us cringe. One of the network’s newest creations, Catfish, a dating show that aims to bring the travails of online dating to light, carries on the bold MTV tradition of satisfying viewers by documenting the foolhardiness and misery of young people.

Catfish’s premise is simple enough: young people in online relationships feel they’re being fooled by their significant others and consult the show’s hosts, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, to investigate. More often than not, hopes of romance and true love are shattered when one party is revealed to be lying about their identity.

The phenomenon of “catfishing” — luring an online lover into a relationship with either distorted or completely erroneous information, is a byproduct of the social media age. Before the MTV show, catfishing stories rarely left the confines of internet dating sites and chatrooms. But spurned by the catfishing story involving football player Manti Te’o last January, (which remarkably happened in the middle of Catfishs first season) the phenomenon has cemented a very legitimate place in our cultural consciousness and vernacular.

The show was parodied on Saturday Night Live, with musician Adam Levine playing a flamboyant version of host/creator Nev Schulman. Additionally, the show was number two on Nielson’s list of top ten social TV programs for the week of July 8.

Unsurprisingly, the Catfish brand, which was a documentary before it was a TV show, has gained so much traction that Schulman and co-creator Max Joseph say they’ve submitted a petition to Merriam-Webster to formally induct “catfish” into the English language dictionary.

Obviously, Schulman, Joseph and MTV are smart to have capitalized on the booming online dating scene. Annually, the online dating industry nets over $1 billion and has been used by forty million of America’s 54 million single people.

But despite Cathfish’s timeliness and high-ratings, viewers should be less thrilled with the show’s blatant manipulation of human gullibility and MTV’s tired formula of repetitively exploiting young people to dominate the airwaves.

If it weren’t for the obvious collusion — that Schulman, the would-be do-gooder and enabling co-host who’s been catfished himself wasn’t really exploiting participants’ vulnerability, Catfish would make honest and compelling  television.  

The show is ripe with stories of human melodrama plucked right from a soap opera. Episodes abound with stories of heartbreak, despair and the woes of single-motherhood. There’s tales of loneliness, insecurity, sexual confusion and the malaise of twenty-somethings who move back in with their parents. Then there’s the nerve-wracking suspense and the nail-biting apprehension that accompanies the fatal knock on your internet lover’s door the moment before they finally reveal themselves.

All of these elements combine to make Catfish the knee-jerking, hair-raising spectacle that it is, despite its trite and predictable format.

One thing thing that Catfish does inadvertently illuminate however, is the technological ineptitude of America’s young people. Most spurious identities are uncovered through routine Google searches or after mundane queries on Facebook and Instagram. The simplicity in which fake identities are revealed portray the show’s hopeful, cow-eyed participants as technologically illiterate and even worse, painfully gullible.

The lies that Schulman reveals are thinly-veiled at best and establish MTV’s true intent as a purveyor of youth culture: exploiting foolishness and the resulting despair of young people.

But this should come as no surprise, because MTV has stayed relevant over the last two decades by producing a swath of theatrical reality shows that rely on the same formulaic and patronizing model, and we know them all too well. Next, Room-Raiders, The X-effect, Exposed, and now Catfish all reveal MTV’s ambition to reap profits, secure high-ratings and maintain cultural relevance, albeit at the expense of human credulity.

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Sam Blum

Sam Blum is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz. He's written for Time Out Los Angeles, LAist, The Guardian and reported/blogged for Southern California Public Radio. When he's not bussing tables or daydreaming about his life, he can be found rolling around with sweaty dudes on the floor, training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

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