SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Clickbait,” streaming now on Netflix.
In the first episode of Netflix’s new limited series, “Clickbait,” a husband and father named Nick (Adrian Grenier) is kidnapped and filmed holding a sign that says he abuses women and will be killed when the video reaches 5 million views.
Unsurprisingly, the video goes viral and Nick’s fate is sealed. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, though, that all happens within the first episode — and who kidnapped him isn’t who ends up killing him.
A tangled web unravels that makes it seem like Nick was a serial cheater, on every dating site under a new name, having relationships with women in multiple cities. When one of those women kills herself and uncaring messages from Nick’s profile are found on her phone, her brother wants him to pay. But that #MeToo revenge fantasy still isn’t the whole story.
Nick ends up paying for the mistakes of his assistant Dawn (Becca Lish), who was the one behind all of the dating profiles. Dawn was a catfish who started out communicating with these women out of sheer curiosity. Things turned much darker, though, when her secret was found out.
While Nick was being help captive, he looked at some of the “proof” of his online relationships and realized the images were photoshopped. (Why women would want their online boyfriend to photoshop them into an image with him, rather than meet in person and take a real one, was never discussed.) Eventually he realized that the woman who had set up his work station knew his password and therefore had access to the original photos. He left his kidnappers alive, but confronting Dawn — and her husband — did him in. And when his son (Jaylin Fletcher) turned up on Dawn’s door, the same fate almost befell him.
With so much going on in the series, Variety spoke with co-creator Tony Ayres to break down the decision-making behind the whodunnit.
At what point when you were developing “Clickbait” did you decide who was really going to be responsible for the deceit surrounding Nick?
Christian [White] and I created the show from two or three real things that we had read about this new class of crimes on the internet. One of them was obviously catfishing, and we were particularly baffled and intrigued by the instances of women impersonating men. So, we knew that that was going to be part of it.
At what point did you decide the culprit was going to be this particular woman, Dawn?
We knew from the start that she had done something; she had opened Pandora’s box — and quite innocently, as well. That was always the intention because I think that that’s what happens in real life: people can fall down these quite innocent rabbit holes, particularly with the internet, particularly now, and unleash surprising and sometimes tragic real world consequences.
Speaking to the innocent intentions, why was it more important that the willingness to kill to protect a secret be circumstantial, rather than an inner darkness that was lurking the whole time?
One of the things I wanted to do most of all was create a thriller that didn’t rely on psychopathy or sociopathy; I was interested in how ordinary people get into these circumstances. And so, I feel like, what happens in the final episode, it was really important for me to try to understand what happened from Dawn’s point of view. It was really important for me to understand her psychology and the feelings that she got from impersonating Nick and how that somehow kicked into something sexual and then how it completely unravels in the worst possible way. And weirdly enough, I think that the couple at the end, I think of them as innocence misled — misguided innocence.
Thinking that way, even after how far they’ll go — including almost killing a child — seems to require a large amount of empathy.
One of the things about trying to tell a story from eight different points of view is that when you’re in the point of view of a character, they never see themselves as bad people. And so, I was trying to help audiences at least understand the motivation. We all make judgments of good and bad behavior and where our moral lines [are] — that’s what we do as audiences — but I just wanted to make those judgments at least more informed. I’m less interested in the black-and-white and much more interested in shades of grey. And I think everyone, in some way or other, behaves badly in the show. We tried to create a show where there were no simple heroes and villains.
Those multiple points of view also inherently come with complications for the audience because if you’re tracking someone’s behavior so closely, you could be reading into some small things. Knowing that, how did you work out exactly how many actual red herrings you wanted to put into the plot versus just leaving room for interpretation based on a character’s mannerisms or shifty line reading?
You can’t do a murder mystery without red herrings, so we planted a couple of fairly obvious ones, like Nick’s work colleague, who genuinely misbehaves. Early on we also planted an obvious red herring, which is pointing toward something untoward with Nick’s wife, and then after that we pointed toward Nick himself. And so, there are major, deliberate red herrings in the show. But I think you’re right: audiences will always kind of look in every direction and turn over every stone, and we wanted to keep the audience guessing and thinking. Ideally, what we wanted to do was create both a whodunnit and a whydunnit in the process.
And the story order influences that as well because, just intellectually, we know that we’re not going to get the answers until the end.
I think you’re absolutely right. When you’re creating these kinds of shows, sometimes you can tell who the murderer is by the billing! [Laughs.] Of course the biggest red herring is the brother, and I was absolutely cognizant that if you put the brother in Episode 6, you’re telling the audience that this is not the end of the story. The other red herring is the person that the son is texting, and that was a deliberate plan across the entire series, and that’s, I thought, the person who audiences would go to as the real culprit. That’s the person I would have picked. In creating these shows, you are cognizant of how sophisticated audiences are, and this is a tried and true genre, and so, you have to know the genre as much as you can.
Going back to knowing Dawn was going to be the one to really be guilty and put all of these things in motion, how did that then influence the kind of character you needed Nick to be? Did you want audiences to assume he could be capable of something terrible, and to what degree?
When we were creating Nick, I think we were relying on the trope of the good guy with secrets and, in that sense, felt that the audience would kind of go along with that, straightaway. He needs to appear innocent, but in some senses, I think it’s credible for anyone these days to be someone with secrets. I don’t actually think we had to work too hard to make it credible because I think, in the age of the internet in particular, everyone has secret lives. Sometimes those secrets are more untoward, sometimes they’re quite benign, but there are bits of ourselves which do show and bits of ourselves that we don’t show. And I think that the big difference now is there’s a real blurring of those two things, and that’s what was interesting. I didn’t feel we had to work too hard to make him credible.
What did you need from Adrian playing Nick to assist with that?
What was great about having Adrian as Nick is that he can have a quality which makes you wonder what’s going on underneath that nice exterior. He has his very public, warm persona, but there are layers of mystery to him as an actor, and there’s something about him that makes you also believe that he could be a bad guy.
You mentioned Nick needs to appear innocent, but because of the way the show starts — with him getting so irate with his sister and grabbing her physically — the audience may think he’s not a good guy from the jump. What made you decide to start there?
I guess I read it as, there was a terrible fight at the beginning and even though he’s quite angry, I also think that when you start Episode 1 with [his sister] Pia, you realize very quickly she’s quite a tricky character herself. She’s not necessarily a sweet, likable character; she’s prickly and she’s abrasive and she’s judgmental. And so, I hadn’t thought of him in that way. I had thought of him as a brother who had reached the end of his tether with a difficult sister who is always pushing and prodding and attacking his wife, who she clearly doesn’t like. So that was my intention in starting that way, but it’s interesting that can be read in other ways, which I think works in our favor.
It certainly shows the tension and conflict within the family, and therefore the tension and conflict that will come when trying to get to the bottom of what happened to Nick and what Nick really did — especially when his wife and sister have to work together.
That’s the central journey of the series, in a way.
Which is deeper than the title suggests. Can we talk about the choice of “Clickbait” as the title? What did you want to invoke with it?
We had a lot of discussions around the title and what the title should be. Hopefully people will understand that there is something ironic in it because the show is talking about, “How is clickbait constructed?” There is a meta narrative through the series about how these stories turn viral — what is the sequence of events that have to happen?
The video of Nick after he was kidnapped would, of course, go viral, but some shows might have slowed down the timeline of the episodes so characters were racing against the clock to get to the bottom of where he is and why he’s being accused before he was killed.
Very early on [in drafts], it took a lot longer. [Laughs.] And then we did almost a timeline graph in the room, trying to work out how long it would be. For narrative purposes, it makes more sense for us to really raise the stakes at the end of Episode 1. It’s almost a rule of thumb these days — because there’s so much material and so many viewing choices, you really want to try to hook the audience in early.