MTV resides at the nexus of so many trends in a digitally mediated, disconnected, image-conscious world that “Catfish: The TV Show” feels perfectly suited to the channel. Using the template of the hit documentary film about an online courtship — which made a splash at Sundance and triggered ample debate about its authenticity — the program plays like a mystery, while exploring the social alienation and insecurity that might cause someone to misrepresent themselves and deceive others. Thought-provoking and entertaining, “Catfish” will likely inspire a whole lot of chatter, both online and off.
“Catfish” is one of those rare reality shows that elicits a desire to spend more time with the participants, prompting myriad questions about their motivations. As constructed, moreover, the show engineers an intriguing flip partway through, shifting from the uncertainty of the person the producers started highlighting to the psychological vulnerability of the person with whom they’ve been interacting, who may not be as advertised.
Beginning with a brief recap of the movie and how Nev Schulman interacted with a woman online before traveling to meet her, the show follows similar stories of people who have forged relationships — sometimes through years of chatting — with possible soulmates in faraway locales. It then offers to facilitate in-person meetings and “help people meet their online loves for the first time,” after researching the unseen partner (OK, basically just Googling them) to gather clues about whether they have been honest regarding who they are.
Without giving too much away, the two episodes previewed have a rawness about them that helps dispel understandable skepticism about how much manipulation has gone into the editing and staging of these encounters. And when someone sheepishly says, “I’m not very confident in who I am,” it’s poignant enough to draw viewers into the show’s reality and help the audience suspend disbelief.
Schulman and filmmaker Max Joseph tag along for the ride, and while the duo is probably the program’s weakest part, they at least don’t overly get in the way — offering a comforting shoulder and encouragement. In addition, the producers do a shrewd job of not just building toward the reveal, but then following its aftermath, with the emotions of the previously unseen party brought into the equation.
Of course, MTV has done plenty to contribute to the sort of unreal istic expectations that make people self-conscious enough to pose as a Barbie-thin model online, but the network’s cultural sins serve as a separate sidebar (if undeniably interesting, in a term-paper way). In an age where relationships increasingly use technology to bridge geographic distance, “Catfish: The TV Show” is the kind of shiny object that ought to reel in viewers — whether they’ve walked a mile in these shoes, or simply harbor the voyeuristic impulse to watch others stumble around in them.