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In the season three premiere, hosts Nev and Max help Craig and his sister, Miriah, to uncover the truth about Zoe

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Here’s How MTV’s Catfish Actually Works

Filmmaker and Catfish investigator Max Joseph told us after last week’s episode that the MTV reality hit “is about breaking through to people and getting them to see themselves and understand their decisions and their actions.” That’s a self-congratulatory way to talk about the Zeitgeisty show in which Joseph and fellow cybersleuth Nev Schulman solve cases of online identity fraud. It’s also the truest way, because Catfish is not just out to expose people lying about their bodies. Like all other reality shows, it’s super contrived, but maybe not in the ways you might think. Here are the eight important things Vulture learned about how Catfish gets made after a frank conversation with series executive producer and MTV senior vice president of news and docs Marshall Eisen. Think of it not as destroying the magic but as proof that all that anxiety is real, which makes Catfish just plain good TV.

The liars get cast first.
As you might have surmised by now based on production logistics alone, this happens most of the time. MTV’s casting application first asks, “Do you have a secret or something to confess to your online partner? Have you made any fake online profiles?” before it asks if you feel like your online crush is lying to you. “It’s often the catfish we hear from first because they’re looking to unburden themselves,” Eisen explained. “It’s not always the case, but it probably happens more than people realize.” Take for example the season two episode “Mike & Kristen,” which began with Nev and Max receiving a letter from Mike (subject line: “Separated by less than 40 miles”), asking for their help to connect him with the girl he’d met on Facebook and spent the last three and a half years falling in love with. In fact, it was Kristen who wrote in asking to get on the show. To recall: Kristen was revealed later in the episode to have been involved in a car accident that left her physically handicapped, kicked out of school, and so depressed that she gained 130 pounds. Mike had been there for her after the accident, though he thought she looked like someone else, and she wanted to come clean. The first thing she said to Mike when he showed up to her door with Nev and Max wasn’t a surprised “Hi ... ” but an “I’m sorry.” Producers haven’t “felt compelled” to construct an episode that starts with the POV of the catfish just yet, but reserve the right to do so in the future. Eisen said that from a storytelling perspective, it ultimately doesn’t matter whom producers hear from first — the hopeful or the catfish — “because we’re not doing an ambush show.”

Everyone signs a waiver to appear on-camera before filming begins.
In the original Catfish documentary, Nev and filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman turned up with cameras rolling on the doorstep of Angela, the woman they had discovered had been lying to Nev about who she was. Catfish the TV show doesn’t work that way. “We can’t do that and won’t do that,” Eisen said. Producers are in touch with all parties, albeit separately, to conduct background checks and to make sure everyone is onboard to film before Max and Nev are brought in to do their digging. (So, in the example of Mike and Kristen, Mike agreed to let producers construct the episode as if he had written in to Nev and Max without knowing what the outcome would be.) Most people don’t need much convincing to participate, even if they’re the ones being caught in a lie. “Lying is a very hard thing to do,” Eisen said. “It takes a lot of energy. Most of them feel relief saying, ‘Oh, I can end this.’” This explains why the catfish is usually already miked for sound when the hopeful arrives for the confrontation!

But the waiver doesn’t guarantee cooperation.
In the season three premiere, “Craig & Zoe,” a girl named Zoe (real name Cassandra) had been caught catfishing not only online boyfriend Craig but Craig’s sister and her friends. (Craig wrote in to the show first in this case.) When Nev, Max, Craig, Craig’s sister, and the crew showed up to confront Cassandra, she was not home. Eisen said it happens. “If this had been our first season and we hadn’t had a lot of experience, we might have stopped shooting there,” he said. But since producers had already spoken with Cassandra and gotten her okay, they felt somewhat certain she would eventually turn up, which she did. But had she decided at the last minute to tell the crew to get lost? “We would have. That would have been the end of it,” Eisen said. “We never know 100 percent for sure if the catfish is going to go through with this, even if they commit to filming. That’s why there is a lot of tension in those scenes when we pull up for the visit because we’re all waiting for the day when the catfish will not respond or change their mind.” That hasn’t happened yet, but if and when it does happen, Eisen said production is prepared to pack it up. “They’re real people and they’re exposing themselves, making themselves vulnerable, and we’re never going to force them to do it,” he said.

Nev and Max are kept in the dark more than anyone else involved.
Beyond the producers overseeing each episode, Nev, Max, and most of the crew have no idea where each story will take them. Producers, of course, have mapped out the beginning and ending, but as far as getting from A to Z, Nev and Max do real legwork to connect the deceived with the deceiver. In last week’s episode, “Antwane & Tony,” said legwork led them down the wrong path. (To be fair, they were dealing with an expert catfisher: Carmen wrote in asking them to help her cousin Antwane meet his mystery man Tony; in fact, Carmen had been pretending to be Tony for years as part of an elaborate revenge scheme.) “Our whole mantra for the guys is, ‘If you can’t figure it out, just go with it and see where it takes you,'” Eisen said. In “Antwane & Tony,” “they’re completely wrong and they lead the hopeful into a situation they didn’t see coming, and they feel really bad about it. It’s a total surprise to them what’s going to happen. Sometimes they get really flustered by what they see.” And boy, did they let Carmen have it.

It can take Nev and Max a long time to crack a case.
“We edit the investigations down. They can be grueling,” Eisen said, laughing. “There have been very, very long days where Nev and Max are trying to figure it out, and we can’t help them.” Producers do their own trial and error investigations prior to filming to get some idea of how long it might take Nev and Max to get to the bottom of a fraud, but their estimates aren’t always on point. “The guys are better at it now, but it’s not always obvious how to crack these things. We’ve condensed what’s taken them ten hours in some instances into five or six minutes, but we try to show that it was difficult.”

Plenty of people want to catfish MTV now.
The show’s popularity has given way to a lot of people faking their stories “just to see if they can fool us,” Eisen said, but once the fact-checking begins it’s not difficult to tell who’s lying. “We just have to work harder to make sure they’re real, which we didn’t have to do at all in the first season,” he said. “It’s just a pitfall of being more of a known thing.” You’ve been warned, fake catfishers.

The stories have gotten pretty dark.
Most of the requests to appear on the show continue to come from people who want to figure out (or make a confession about) their online romances, and the prevailing theme of those stories continues to be people not feeling great about how they look. This season, MTV wanted to get away from some of that and didn’t have to look far to do it. “When we saw that was repeating itself, we definitely tried to diversify, and there were plenty of other stories to tell,” Eisen said. So far this season, the strategy has resulted in two episodes about mean-spirited, “I’m just doing this for fun”–style fraud. “We talk about whether or not we’re promoting this bad behavior,” Eisen said. “But a lot of the time once Nev and Max start talking to the person lying, there’s always an underlying issue. Sometimes it takes a while getting there, but it’s never just a sociopath.”

MTV sends therapists to meet with everyone after production wraps.
Sociopaths or not, everyone who appears on the show, as Joseph told us, speaks with a therapist after filming is over. “We want to make sure that a professional is there in case the person needs it,” Eisen said. “Fortunately we haven't had any issues after the show has aired, but we need to make sure that people are taken care of if they need to be.”

Photo: MTV