Does Catfish Owe Us A Happy Ending?

After the series premiere of MTV's new unscripted series, Catfish, I couldn't help commenting on its less believable elements, and if you've seen that episode, you know why: it did not seem possible that Sunny, the girl host Nev Schulman was helping to meet her online boyfriend in person for the first time, could be so devoted to her supposed swain, R.J., that she would believe what were, to the cynical viewer, obvious lies; the show, therefore, appealed to the ugly part of us (maybe just me, but I doubt it) that wanted to see these trusting dupes disabused of their delusions so that we could feel superior and worldly by comparison.

You would think that would never stop being satisfying -- it certainly hit the spot in Catfish, the movie, when Schulman learned that his sexy dancer girlfriend was actually a depressed middle-aged sociopath with cancer (fake cancer, it turned out). But four episodes into the season (the fifth airs tonight), the run of romantic disappointments has lost its lustre. If we know every episode is going to end in heartbreak, the only suspense in watching is not knowing the nature of the perpetrator's deception; that there has been deception now seems inevitable.

Do I want these unfortunate gulls to find love so that they will enjoy happiness and fulfillment for the rest of their days? Sure! (That's what happens to all the people who hook up on MTV, right?) But as a viewer, my more urgent need is for the show to exhibit some variety. Surely some of the Facebook users who treat the site like an inefficient dating service must be truthful and sincere? If nothing else, it would validate the otherwise incomprehensible choice some users have made not to be vigilant with their privacy settings, allowing these lovelorn strangers to find their profiles in the first place. If Catfish made one or two actual love connections, it would make it easier to justify watching the majority of episodes in which naïve simpletons are made to look foolish. "Maybe this one will end well, and I'll feel bad for calling this person a dummy fifty times in the first half-hour! Oops, it's not. OH WELL!"

Logo's The Baby Wait, which ended its first season last week, had exactly the opposite problem. The series revolved around adoptions in states where biological parents have a period of time, after placing their babies with adoptive families, to change their minds (without penalty) and regain custody, leaving bereft the adoptive parents who've cared for the babies. In every episode, the adoptive parents (prompted by producers, no doubt) talked about their fear that the biological parents would take back the kids -- even in episodes where the adoptive parents and the biological mother (generally biological fathers were not involved) had formed deep bonds, spent time with one another's families, and are clearly all comfortable with the adoption plan, and the supposed peril for the adopted baby is being hyped for the cameras. At a certain point, I wondered why I was watching these nice people place their nice babies with nice couples. Like, it's great that everyone's happy, but a story where people make a plan and successfully see it through is...not much of a story. If no biological parent is ever going to exercise the option to regain custody of the adopted child, the premise of the show is phony, so why are we even watching?

Then the adoptive mother exercised the option to take back her son in the season finale, and I felt like a monster, because it was devastating -- so devastating, in fact, that if The Baby Wait returns, I don't think I can watch it. If everything works out well, it's not exactly entertaining. And if things go awry, you realize you're rooting for "drama" in the form of a shattered family. At least the dopes on Catfish are (as Tracie Egan Morrissey put it on Jezebel last week) "shallow lookists" who have brought misfortune on themselves by being incurious narcissists. On The Baby Wait, several adults -- overseen by several different kinds of authorities -- enter into a legal agreement to determine the future of an actual human child. Being there to see, essentially, if one of them is going to yell "PSYCH!" is not a respectable way for one to spend one's time.