‘Catfish’ TV Show: The New Face of MTV (Really)

Catfish MTV

Capturing digital disconnect, the cyber-romance has become MTV's latest zeitgeist hit

One byproduct of MTV’s youthful audience profile is the dizzying speed with which the channel chews through its zeitgeist moments. So after being defined for a time by “Jersey Shore” — which has spawned a slew of spinoffs and copycats — the network has seemingly moved on to a new signature franchise, which for better and worse niftily defines the times: “Catfish: The TV Show.”

The series returns June 25 for an expanded 16-episode run, having enjoyed an unexpected windfall the first year thanks to the story of Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o, who experienced a very similar this-person-is-not-what-he-or-she-professes-to-be online relationship, shedding light on the phenomenon.

Even more than “Teen Mom” or other tabloid-friendly titles, “Catfish” (adapted from a documentary that also caused a stir) directly taps into a deeper longing within the audience, and a growing hunger for social connection that is often mediated — perilously, in some instances — through a digital interface.

In that respect, even the standard reality-TV manipulations and sleight of hand to intensify the drama — a practice discussed in regard to the show’s first season — is virtually irrelevant. Whether “Catfish” twists these situations to fit a narrative or not, the show identifies a dynamic that clearly resonates with much of its audience. In a way, the “Catfish” generation has been turned into the science nerd who’s so smart about technology that he’s inept when it comes to dealing with the basics.

The season premiere doesn’t add any new wrinkles, beyond the fact “Catfishing” has been added to the lexicon, which, theoretically, should make young love-seekers less gullible. Yet here we are in the premiere meeting Cassie, an attractive young woman who says she is engaged to a handsome (from his photo, anyway) rap star she has never met.

It gives away little to say all is not as it appears, leaving Cassie to say things like “I feel violated” — the sense of violation being one of the more powerful emotions that “Catfish” consistently captures.

The real genius, though, is in the casting, picking people who would seem to be able to have an old-fashioned, meet-in-person romance, at least on the possibly-being-misled side of the equation. “He’s just hiding something,” Cassie says at the beginning, creating an alibi for “Steve” even before the show’s central duo, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, begin googling him.

How can she be so naïve? Why wouldn’t she seek a relationship with someone in her city? These are the kinds of questions “Catfish” practically dares you to shout at the TV. For all the talk about interactivity, that’s still one of the more involving reactions TV can elicit.

MTV’s main problem is the success of “Catfish” will suck up a lot of oxygen, at a time when the network’s nascent steps into original scripted programming continue to be unsteady. At some point, MTV needs to find a higher-class commodity that establishes the same sort of hold on its viewers, which has thus far proved elusive. In programming terms, it’s the difference between maturity and random hookups with the latest cultural oddity.

For now, though, “Catfish” is indeed having its day, and one suspects will have a clear influence on MTV in the near term, until the next inevitable spin of the cultural carousel.

“Sometimes, a little bit of fiction leads to a whole lot of reality,” Schulman says in the intro, rather awkwardly trying to distill the show into a sentence.

Whatever the level of fiction residing in “Catfish,” he’s right about one thing: This peculiar illustration of the modern quest for virtual love is going to lead to a whole lot of similar-looking reality TV.

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  1. candy girl says:

    I’ve stopped watching this show. Okay, so you’re moderately attrative and yet this drop dead gorgeous guy contacts you online because he can’t find anyone in RL? And you continue this relationship for years? How stupid can people be?

  2. I believe that there is more than one ingenious thread that weaves the “Catfish” narrative.

    First…. is the fact that it runs in the summer. A time that still resonates with today’s youth as a time for cultivating a new romance (that notion will be dead in five years–by the way). So there is a built in timeline of engagement.

    Second… like the druids and the many fragile groups who lived before us—they both fear and worship the same god (in this case technological connections) with absolute zeal. They have been worshiped on Facebook and vilified in the same week. The gods are testy beasts and logging in on the right day at the right time just might find your soulmate–or assailant.

    Lastly, is the “Springer” factor… there is nothing an audience loves more than to feel superior to someone else by way of ridicule. And considering the general malaise that hangs over a bunch of 18 to 20 somethings… it’s a way to escape student debt, no job prospects and to possible resonate
    with some of the fringe people who are on the show.

    Unlike us blue hairs… a “whaa suuup” text is the equivalent offering to carry someone’s books.

  3. Charles n Ross says:

    I live in Mississippi, and met a girl from West Virginia . She came to see me in July of1999. We got married in December of that year. We have 3 boys and are very happy.just thought you might want to hear something good that came from the Internet. Love your show.

  4. Ricky Williams says:

    Would like to meet Trina if she is still available.
    She really seam like a lovable person .

  5. Donnie says:

    MTV is becoming too close to an second-tier ABC Family, something I’d never thought I’d say. They used to target your older brother, and you’d watch to be cool like him. Now they target your younger sister. It’s a bad idea, it takes away from MTV’s cool factor and dilutes the brand. They need the edge and coolness they had in the late 90s and early 00s: music-related shows (not music videos but insight into the lives of artists, and “MTV Live” and TRL in its days before it had an in-studio audience), and shows focused on 20-somethings that appealed and was relatable for college-aged people (from “Road Rules” (which should be brought back in its original format) to “Blame Game” to “Daria” to “Sandblast” to “Undressed” to once again “MTV Live” where pop acts AND rock acts AND comedians would be talked to, not just tween acts) rather than focused on the lives of tweens. Teens will watch shows about 20-somethings because they want to emulate them and think they personally are as old as they are, but 20-somethings won’t watch shows about tweens.

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