It’s Time for Catfish to Come to an End

L-R: Max Joseph and Nev Schulman.

It’s hard to remember, now that he’s been a public figure for so long, but Nev Schulman’s career is the consequence of his credulousness. He was first featured in a documentary about falling in love with a stranger from Facebook who turned out to be one of ten-plus sock-puppet accounts operated by a married mother in Michigan. He turned the movie into Catfish, a series on MTV that aired its 100th episode this year. He wrote a book. Perhaps his greatest legacy will turn out to be convincing the world — and Merriam-Webster — to call online liars “catfish,” or maybe, before very long, the last generation of people who remember the term’s origin will die, and Schulman’s impact will die with them. It’s not out of the question, considering that lately, the Catfish brand is really starting to stink.

Even if you never had an especially high opinion of MTV’s Catfish — perfectly understandable and sensible! — I can tell you as someone who has watched every episode and covered it in-depth since the start of season two: The show has absolutely gotten worse. For one, it was far more static in its recently ended seventh season than it used to be: Schulman and co-host Max Joseph formerly spent Act 1 traveling to meet their client (a chump, usually) wherever he or she lived, and then Act 3 journeying from there, client in tow, to meet the mysterious online boyfriend or girlfriend (a liar, usually). Now they both just park it in Los Angeles and make everyone come to them. I assume this keeps costs down, and certainly minimizes the amount of time Schulman and Joseph must spend away from their wives and, in the case of the former, his new baby daughter. (It’s also been increasingly obvious that the houses the show has tried to pass off as being show participants’ actual homes definitely aren’t; bringing everyone to L.A. lets the show dispense with that fraudulent facet of its constructed reality.)

But the biggest challenge Catfish faces as a TV series is that its premise is unsustainable. As long ago as season two, when MTV had the gall to burn a week on a mid-season reunion, I speculated that the show would soon run out of client-victims. I sincerely believed that the show would teach internet users to conduct their own investigations at least as elaborate (read: insultingly simple) as those Schulman and Joseph do; thus, it would be so shameful for the few people who were still taken in by online liars to admit it publicly by appearing on the show. And consequently, for Catfish to continue, it would have to pivot away from its original premise and morph into a vehicle by which legit online couples who lack only the means to meet in person are happily united thanks to MTV’s largesse. How naïve was I? I wrote that in 2013.

Joke’s on me! People are still either dumb enough to let themselves be deceived — badly, most of the time — by strangers online, willfully ignorant enough not to try to unravel their beloved’s mysterious cover stories, or sufficiently interested in being on TV to fake one or both of the above. But this still presents a problem for the producers of Catfish, because as time has gone on, we’ve seen that there are really only about three ways an episode can go:

• The beloved is exactly who the client hoped and dreamed! (Rare.)
• The beloved is malicious and purposely set out to make the client look foolish. (Slightly less rare.)
• The beloved is a sad person who deceived the client with fake photos because they’re unhappy about the way they look. (At least 85 percent of the series run to date.)

Schulman’s new narration over season seven’s opening credits promised, “Every episode has double the secrets … double the surprises … and double the reveals … that are seriously going to blow your mind.” If you guessed that would mean most of the clients had also used fake photos: yeah, pretty much. Only once in a blue moon do you get an episode like “Kayla & Courtney,” in which a young woman is contacted by a medium who claims to be in contact with Kayla’s father, Frankie, even though Frankie killed himself 15 years earlier while incarcerated for stabbing Kayla’s pregnant mother. The rest of the time, you’re pretty much just waiting to meet the less conventionally attractive person who almost got away with stealing pics from an Instagram model.

Catfish has so far exceeded what would have been an appropriate life span, it’s building up a repertory company of repeat participants. In season six, Jose appeared in two episodes, first as a liar and then as a chump; season seven featured the return of former liars Johnny, Chasity, and Mary. MTV networks do like to develop their reality-show stars into multi-franchise players — witness the Teen Moms who’ve done stints on VH1’s Couples Therapy, just for starters — but unless the plan is for Catfish alumni to be recruited for The Challenge like they’ve done with former contestants on Are You the One?, seeing all these old faces again just highlights how small the pool of cooperating witnesses must actually be.

Perhaps with this in mind, MTV tried to set Schulman up with another star vehicle he could step into whenever Catfish inevitably ran its course — Suspect. The premise was Catfish-adjacent: someone’s keeping a secret, and a loved one wants to know what it is. The problem was, these were people who knew each other for real and, apparently, just felt awkward asking what was up? And as it turns out, Schulman doesn’t actually have any PI skills, so every “mystery” was pretty much 20 minutes of unfounded speculation before Schulman’s co-host, iO Tillett Wright, would suggest that they just ask the secret-keeper to meet and come clean on camera. Catfish is silly, but Suspect was both dumb and pointless, and didn’t make it to a second season.

The problem with being in the Nev business, though — and MTV has been since 2012 — is Nev. Even though he talked about (and some might say minimized) his assault on a fellow Sarah Lawrence student in his book, the incident could well have gone unnoticed (because no one read the book but me) had he not infamously tweeted an elevator selfie non sequitur-ishly distinguishing himself from Ray Rice … two days before his book was released. Two years later, Schulman drew Twitter users’ ire during a BET special called Black Girls Rock; he jumped on the hashtag to declare that while black girls may rock, “they also tend to #catfish a lot.” The next month, Schulman’s then-girlfriend Laura Perlongo published a blog post on Attn.com detailing how she got “pregnant accidentally on purpose” as a result of “condom-less, birth control-free sex.” Her self-portrait of intentional contraception non-use as just a Manic Pixie Dream Girl quirk, combined with the identity of her child’s father, resulted in roasting by Catfish viewers. (Laura leaned in, showing up to the VMAs later that year dressed like this.)

In the show’s seventh season, which concluded in March, that same Laura Perlongo, who married Schulman in 2017, now appeared in every episode but one, to weigh in on the investigation; given how often and badly Schulman had embarrassed himself during his association with MTV, maybe the scenes showing Schulman interacting with his good lady wife and their adorable daughter were meant to show the audience that he’d learned from his past public shamings and made himself a respectable life.

The latest extension of the Catfish brand was to have been Catfish: Trolls, which would follow its parent show’s format to unmask internet trolls; radio personality and past Catfish guest-host Charlamagne Tha God was announced as its host. News reports announcing the show slated it for a September 2017 premiere, but it has yet to air. MTV also has yet to announce an eighth season of Catfish, but based on the evidence presented in season seven, there are fewer reasons than ever to justify its existence. Even at the time of the original Catfish movie, released in 2010, it wasn’t a huge shock to the viewer that Schulman’s beloved Megan wasn’t what she seemed. For as long as people have been talking to each other on the internet, they’ve been using fake identities; what was noteworthy about Schulman’s “catfish,” Angela Wesselman-Pierce, was how intricate a world she built around her characters — and that’s if you take the film at face value, which is up for debate. We’ve known since season three that we definitely can’t take the show at face value, but it could still be fun to watch despite all that, for a certain kind of person (me) who revels in the scandals of other people’s lives. (The delight that Schulman, a messy bitch who loves drama, takes in these stories’ illicit details is his most relatable attribute.)

But we’ve come to a point where the hosts can’t even be bothered to leave town for their sleuthing. And one can hardly blame them, given that Catfish has become an anthology not of hopeful people seeking love with pure intentions, but of liars trying to justify having lied to each other. Once you know how hard Schulman and Perlongo are working to extend their own brands as personalities, giving relationship advice on their own Facebook Live show, it’s impossible not to see their participation in Catfish as a means to other showbiz ends that don’t involve pretending to care about Oklahomans who stole models’ photos for fake Tinder accounts. Nothing’s stopping MTV from just giving Nev and Mrs. Nev the talk show they obviously want, and forcing the chumps to fend for themselves. The chumps should know better by now, anyway.

It’s Time for Catfish to Come to an End