On Monday night, a good chunk of the people I follow on Twitter were practically howling about Catfish. Somehow I missed last month’s debut of the MTV hit show, one that seems to have quickly gained a cult following. Viacom’s President and CEO Philippe Dauman (questionably) touted Catfish as “the highest-rated launch in MTV history.”
If you need a late pass like me, ignore the show’s title and focus on the compelling premise. Each episode — which drags up every fear you might have ever had about online dating — features a person who has formed a relationship with someone they met online, but have never seen, not in person or even video chat. Nev Schulman (creator of the documentary “Catfish” which detailed his own encounter with online love) and his trusty cameraman investigate the shady occurrence of why two lovebirds have never had a face-to-face encounter, and arrange for them to meet in person, often with disastrous and/or hilarious and/or cringe-worthy results.
Let me give you an example of how this works. (SPOLIER ALERT!!!) On Monday night’s episode, which was so popular that one of the “characters” became a Twitter trending topic, a teen mom hoped to finally meet “Mike,” a busy man she carried on a two-year relationship with, primarily over text. (He called twice. Yes, in two years). The woman, Jasmine, said she was exclusively “dating” him, who again, she’s never met though he lives 15 minutes away. Of course, Schulman took on “the case,” and quickly discovered “Mike” was engaged with two children. Jasmine still wanted to meet him though, so Schulman set it up. Turned out “Mike” was actually a woman named Mhissy (the “h” is silent), who was dating a man who Jasmine also once dated.
Try to keep up: Mhissy created a persona that she maintained for two friggin’ years in order to distract Jasmine from being interested in Mhissy’s man. And it worked. At the time of the confrontation, Mhissy bragged that the guy was “driving my car right now” (blank stare).
My initial reaction was “huh? Huh?? HUH?!!!!” and then I thought, “how plain stupid can you be?” And by “you,” I meant both women: Jasmine for being a pen pal carrying on a “relationship” for two years with a person she’d never met and then this Mhissy for actually worrying so about this other woman that she doesn’t get how simple it is to brag on man who is riding ‘round Atlanta’ in her ride burning up her high-priced gas.
But it’s not that simple. Allow me to skip over Mhissy — because I can’t with her and given her back story she deserves an entirely separate musing — and focus on Jasmine, who represents the show’s premise and perhaps baffled me most of all.
It’s too easy to dismiss the participants in the show, the ones who carry on love affairs, if only in their minds, as just “stupid.” Sure, they should own a chunk of blame for being willfully naïve. I mean, who falls “in love” with someone they’ve never seen, much less met?
Jasmine was so uncomfortable in her own skin that she visibly squirmed when complimented. Another woman was in an unfulfilling relationship and projected the idea of what was missing there onto her online lover of about a decade. Yet another woman (so I heard), unable to find a relationship due to her occupation as a stripper, held on to an Internet boo just to have somebody care.
Who ends up in a relationship with someone they don’t know? Lonely people. Emotionally-damaged people. Insecure people. Hurt people. People who just want to be loved by any means necessary people. Vulnerable people. That’s who. These participants know these relationships aren’t quite right, hence the emails asking for a Catfish intervention. But they stick around because hope and loneliness can sometimes make intelligent folk override common sense.
And that there is the problem with Catfish. Essentially, it’s about emotionally desperate people, and in documenting the end results of bad decisions it walks a fine line between exploitation and entertainment. That makes me cringe, even if the story is too compelling to turn the channel.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk