The strength of MTV's new hit series "Catfish" may just lead to the show's demise.
Show, created and produced by RelativityREAL, is a spin-off of 2010 documentary "Catfish." Here's what makes "Catfish: The TV Show" so utterly compelling: in each episode, Nev Schulman (of "Catfish" doc) links up with a person who is in love with someone they met online. Schulman and his camera-toting buddy Max Joseph chat with the person (let's call them the "Believer" for the sake of clarity) about their online relationship and how the Believer has always wanted to meet their love (Internet Love, let's call 'em) in real life. Some have carried on these telecommunicative relationships for years without Skyping, much less meeting.
(Schulman noted during the show's TCA panel that many folk who live outside of major metropolitan areas don't have webcams, high speed internet and the like, though that doesn't stop the Believer's friends from doing everything short of choking Believer and yelling "What do you mean, you haven't even Skyped?!")
Now, this is where it gets messy. Schulman and Joseph inevitably find damning evidence online about the Believer's love, with the help of an advanced, exclusive technological sleuthing system known as Google. Facebook photos are traced back to another person's profile, modeling schools don't actually exist, employers are nowhere to be found, you get the idea.
Schulman and Joseph present the evidence to the Believer, the Believer freaks out but then, like a child who saw Mommy taking a bite out of "Santa's" cookie in the middle of the night, the Believer defaults back into buying into Internet Love's story and moves forward with meeting them in person.
You can guess what happens next: Believer and Internet Love rendez-vous in real life, and — no shit! — Internet Love is a different person than their Facebook or Myspace profile led Believer to, well, believe. In some episodes of "Catfish," Internet Love is a different gender altogether, leading Believer to enter a tailspin of embarrassment and anger.
Cut to viewers, glued to their TV screens: jaws hanging open.
The moment when Believer knocks on Internet Love's door is undoubtedly one of the most suspenseful reveals on reality TV right now as both auds, Schulman, Joseph and the subject of the show have no clue who is about to walk out. The lead up to the reveal is powerful as Believer details his or her deep connection with this internet-stranger ("They are my soul mate," many note). And after the reveal, Internet Love often undergoes a heavy, emotional catharsis about why they felt the need to deceive Believer online. (Answer: in many episodes so far, it's from insecurity and fear that Believer would never like them for who they really are.)
So, with that in mind, "Catfish" ranks as one of the most raw reality shows on TV today. Yet, as I watched last night's episode, I couldn't help but wonder how much longer this show could sustain itself on what is essentially a gimmick.
Yes, the reveal is suspenseful and jarring and jam-packed with a variety of emotions, but it is a gimmick nonetheless. Auds are hooked upon their first viewing of "Catfish" because of how shocking this reveal is, but then, upon further episode viewing, auds come to expect the reveal, the gimmick.
Like a drug, they need more to feel that initial high.
How does "Catfish" continue to compel viewers past a first season when auds come to expect a surprise ending? And does relying on a shocking reveal undermine the emotional core of the show, transforming it from a program centered on the nature of online relationships to a show geared towards the "oh shit!" effect?
Currently, "Catfish" uses a cut and dry formula for each episode that builds to the eventual meet up between the two parties in a relationship. For the show to sustain its frenetic, suspenseful energy, it will need to break out of this reliance on the reveal. (As of now, each episode even opens with a teaser of the Believer/Internet Love meet up, underscoring the importance of that element.) While the reveal is of course a darkly entertaining part of the show, "Catfish's" true strength is not in the Facebook-infused money-shot. Rather, it's in the stories of the people engaged in these relationships, and their motivations.
"Catfish" is only a handful of episodes into its frosh run on MTV, but it has already pulled strong numbers in its late night timeslot on Mondays. I, for one, hope the show sees a second season. But unless it evolves its formula, "Catfish" may prove to be a one-hit wonder for the cabler as it cannibalizes the very surprise ending that attracted viewers in the first place.