Just How Phony Is Catfish: The TV Show?

When the documentary (or possibly "documentary") Catfish came out two years ago, the story seemed so improbable -- this streetwise New Yorker was really taken in by such obvious lies? All these milestones of his supposed courtship just happened to be captured on film? -- that doubts about how true it was started to surface almost immediately. (Many of them are collected on the aptly named IsCatfishFake.com.) However, the filmmakers have insisted upon the film's veracity, and either MTV believed them or didn't care, because it's been turned into a documentary TV series, which premiered last night. The series premiere in full:


Maybe everything presented really is documentary truth: obviously, I don't know; I didn't work on it. But here are a few aspects of the episode that gave me pause.

  • I'm not sure it's necessary for there to be so much self-conscious "Are you rolling?" business as, for instance, host (I guess?) Nev Schulman, the star of the Catfish movie, opens his email. First of all, we're not morons; we presume that you screen them before you start reading something out. Second, you could have cut that stuff, since we see that you are rolling. Stop trying so hard to make it seem like the events of this TV series you've agreed to do are spontaneous.
  • Sunny, the woman who's approached Nev and his team about coming on the show in order to facilitate a meeting between herself and R.J., the boyfriend of several months that she's never met, would have to be dangerously stupid not to suspect that he's not totally legit. He's a model...who's taking online courses to become an anesthesiologist (pretty sure you can't become a medical doctor from home)...and also writes the cue cards on Chelsea Lately. Girl, come on. He could have just picked one of those outrageous lies; sticking with all three was practically a cry for help.
  • The way the show is edited makes it seem like Nev's only experience with R.J. is through one reference check with Chelsea Lately, and one (pretty damning) phone call. But I can't imagine that producers would go to the trouble of making a whole TV episode without doing a more thorough background check, just to make sure they don't show up at someone's house only to shoot a bunch of footage they end up not being able to use.
  • Related: when they get to "R.J."'s house and discover that "he" is actually a girl named Chelsea (not the one R.J. supposedly worked for), isn't it lucky for producers that Chelsea happens to be eighteen? If R.J. had been what his phone voice suggested he might be -- a barely pubescent boy -- there probably wouldn't have been an episode.
  • Sunny's reaction to this reveal is...weird. This is someone to whom, per their Facebook chat logs, she's said "I love you"; shouldn't she be devastated by the fact that the R.J. she fell in love with doesn't exist? Either she's known all along that it's fake, or she's been tipped at some point during filming that something is up. (Admittedly, a third possibility is that she's keeping it together because she's on camera.)
  • Something Chelsea says suggests that the reveal isn't completely spontaneous either: "This is the ending of it, right here. This is why we're doing this." I feel like if she had decided, on her own, that meeting Sunny was going to be the end of her fake R.J. King Facebook account, she'd have said "This is why I'm doing this." The word "we're" sounds to me like she had a discussion with producers, at the end of which she was made to see the wisdom of finally telling Sunny the truth.
  • Like all pathological liars (including Angela of the Catfish movie), Chelsea can't stop digging ever deeper holes for herself -- first with her sketchy explanation of how she started impersonating R.J. King in the first place (wanted to get back at someone...what?), and then with her denial -- later retracted -- that she's gay.
  • really don't buy that Sunny -- if what we've been told about her half of the story is true -- would be willing to pose for a goofy photo with Chelsea at the end of all this, much less that she and Chelsea are now on friendly terms.

...I'm not proud that even with all my reservations, I'll probably keep watching this show. However, I suspect that some episodes are going to be about real love connections as opposed to inveterate online liars, but I'll probably be able to tell which way things are headed about halfway through the episode, and if it seems like there's a happy ending on its way, I can just turn it off.