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

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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