tv review

Once You Start Watching Love Fraud, You Can’t Stop

Four of the wronged women, and Carla the bounty hunter, in Love Fraud. Photo: Showtime

Love Fraud could certainly be described as a work of true crime or a docuseries. But the most accurate description for the four-part Showtime miniseries may be “nonfiction revenge thriller.” Academy Award–nominated documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, One of Us) direct this attempt to track down Richard Scott Smith, a man whose given name sounds like a combination of every bland, bad white-guy boyfriend you’ve ever had.

As the series explains in the first episodes, Smith has assumed a variety of identities and either married, gotten engaged to, or become romantically involved with scores of women, often pursuing relationships simultaneously. After meeting them via dating apps or on karaoke nights, then showering them with affection and jumping right into “I love you’s,” Smith eventually ditches these women once things have gotten more serious. In the process, he often drains their bank accounts or leaves them on the hook for a ton of debt, then completely disappears, leaving them in dire straits, not to mention heartbroken and bewildered by what’s happened.

Having gotten frustrated by law enforcement’s lack of response, a core group of his exes decides the only thing to do is take matters into their own hands. They decide to hire a woman known as “Carla the bounty hunter” and try to speed up the process of taking him into custody. “The best way to get over a guy,” says Sabrina, a former partner who lost everything after the relationship and now lives with her parents, “is revenge.”

Love Fraud is a wild mix of Kill Bill, Dirty John, and Catfish, with a dab of To Catch a Predator thrown in for extra spice. Grady and Ewing have cameras right there to capture not only more and more interviews with people who know Smith, but also to follow Carla, some of the exes, and private investigators as they stake out Smith and try to assess when they can finally recruit the cops to move in with the handcuffs.

In case this wasn’t obvious, Love Fraud definitely fits into the WTF genre of docuseries. If it were on Netflix, I’d say, without a doubt, that it will be the next Tiger King. Instead it’s on Showtime — the first episode airs Sunday night — where it’s a bit less likely to capture the attention of a large number of viewers, and also won’t drop all at once. As in the olden times, audiences will have to wait each week for a new episode. On the other hand, that slower rollout could help to build buzz.

There are moments in Love Fraud that elicit the same kind of adrenaline rush as a spy movie might: car chases, PIs, and bounty hunters doing their best to stay on Smith’s tail, and active internet sleuthing, much of it done on a blog updated constantly by Smith’s victims with information about his possible whereabouts and who his next victims might be. There are some unnecessary attempts to amp up the drama, particularly in the form of mixed-media graphic interstitials that occasionally take the audience out of the natural trajectory of the story. There’s no need to do anything extra in this story. It’s extra enough as it is. Even if there’s no one in the room with you, you’ll turn to the molecules in the air and say, “Oh my God, can you believe what this guy did?”

As in Tiger King, there are moments of levity in Love Fraud. There’s one montage of various women revisiting all the lies Smith told them about his professional life. “He went to law school.” Then: “He was a professional water skier.” Then: “He was a pilot.” It’s so outrageous that you can’t help but laugh. There are also some wonderfully idiosyncratic characters in Love Fraud aside from the specter of Smith that hangs over the whole project. The best might be Carla the bounty hunter, a raspy-voiced bartender-turned-fugitive chaser, who wears T-shirts that say things like, “Remember when I asked for your opinion? No? Me neither.” At one point, she turns to the camera before talking to someone named Tyler and says, “This is Tyler, he works for Steve and he’s an arrogant, asshole, cowboy motherfucker, and I hate him” — then, without missing a beat, turns back to Tyler and says, “Hey, what’s goin’ on?” An entire show could be made about Carla the bounty hunter. For all I know, it’s already in development.

Ewing and Grady could have sunk their teeth into the craziness of all this in the same way that Tiger King makes trashy hay of the rivalry between Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic. They are more thoughtful filmmakers than that, though, and show their sources more care and empathy. Pretty much every woman who was conned by this bigamist describes the relationship with him initially as a dream come true. They say that no one had ever treated them as nicely as Smith did, at first, and describe examples of his thoughtfulness — dinners at Applebee’s, lavish gifts — that quickly turn into intense desires to cement their commitment. Their testimonies are indictments of Smith, to be sure, but they also say just as much about how hard it is for women, especially in middle age, to find partners who show them respect.

In a way, Love Fraud reminds me of another new docuseries: The Vow, which airs on HBO on the same night and explores why so many women, as well as men, fell under the sway of Keith Raniere, leader of the NXIVM cult. Like Love Fraud, it also puts the viewer smack in the middle of an attempt to bring down a con artist, but because it’s longer — nine episodes as opposed to four — it’s able to take its time and dig more deeply into the reasons why so many people were drawn to Raniere.

I wish Love Fraud had spent more time investigating the deeper issues that drew all these seemingly smart women to Smith, and why certain men find it so intoxicating to deceive and demean women like them. The docuseries also never questions whether the blog about Smith or the relentless desire to pursue him is a healthy response to the pain he caused (which, in the interest of a trigger warning, does go to some sadly unsurprising darker places). Instead, Grady and Ewing jump along for the “let’s go get him” ride and keep going until the final jaw-dropping moments of this series unfold. You may question the decisions of many people, most especially Smith, while watching Love Fraud. But good luck trying to hop out of this vehicle in hot pursuit once you’ve buckled into its passenger seat.

Once You Start Watching Love Fraud, You Can’t Stop