If a moral conservative wanted to a make a film that documented the sad and lonely state of two generations of Americans, he/she could not do better than what MTV is already producing on Catfish. Each episode of Catfish reveals another sad tale of lost souls, believing the impossible and scamming suckers in hopes of making some kind of connection with another human being.
In the process, the show acts as an unwitting champion of the kind of life that most MTV viewers reject. You know, a life committed to real community in churches, to truth in personal relationships, to chastity in sexual relationships, and to actually valuing people beyond their appearance. For if what happens directly in or on the periphery of the life depicted on Catfish is good, I would hate to see bad.
If you have never watched the show or aren’t familiar with the premise, each episode puts the viewer in contact with a lovebird who has come to suspect they are being “catfished”, or scammed by someone who is not who they claim to be. This Victim No. 1 (as I will call them) has been in a relationship (sometimes for years!) with a person only via text and phone calls, but they have never seen them or met them in person. Hence, they are suspicious. As they explain the improbability of this true love tale, you can practically see the cogs turning in Victim No. 1’s mind during this first act of the show. The truth is beginning to dawn on him or her that they may be staring down a rejection of cosmic proportions.
Meanwhile, the hosts of the show, usually Max and Nev (often in Planned Parenthood t-shirts no less) do some very basic internet research and find that, yes, someone is scamming you using someone else’s social media presence, often a model or otherwise beautiful person. And so concludes Act 1 for Victim 1. During this time, the viewer finds themselves sympathetic to the plight of this poor man or woman, because, after all, they just want to be loved and here they are being hustled.
But then, something interesting happens. You meet the scammer on the other end of the line, and you never know what you will find. It may be a lonely recluse who catfishes dozens of people as a way to pass the time; it may be Victim No. 1’s best friend; it may be someone of the same gender as Victim No. 1; sometimes, they really are who they claim to be and a real love match is made; once, the show itself was duped into basically paying for an airline ticket so two lovebirds could meet.
But often, you realize that you have met Victim No. 2. You often come face to face with a sad person, who has had to debase themselves because they simply do not have the tools or confidence to be who they are. They hide behind a persona because the world has bullied them for so long, they don’t believe they are pretty enough or desirable enough to be in an honest relationship.
Now, that is not always the case, Sometimes, people are just cruel. But the person who you believe is nothing but cruel when the episode begins usually ends up being a victim as well. And then you begin to take a different view of Victim No. 1. Maybe he/she’s not such a victim, after all. Here he was, holding out hope that a woman (or reverse the genders) who is beautiful will love him, and he is willing to hold out that hope only because the photo on the other end of the phone is so lovely. Victim No. 1 starts to look a lot more superficial and a lot more like part of the problem than the solution. After all, if he really loves the woman he’s been texting, why is he disappointed to find out she is not as beautiful as he once believed?
In the film that inspired the television series, the host believed he was communicating with a gorgeous, cool Indie chick, only to later realize that he had been talking to a lonely woman who was homebound with a disabled husband. He’s left off the hook for his superficiality because she was already married. And while loneliness does not excuse duplicity, being a victim does not hide superficiality, either.
On the whole, each episode usually ends on a happy note, perhaps with a love match or new friends or everyone being the wiser for their shenanigans. The show does not intend to offer value judgments on the culture at large, though it certainly reveals a lot to judge.
Catfish doesn’t seem to realize it is swimming in muck, that it is focusing on a handful of people while actually putting on full display an entire generation of young people who seem lost in love, truth, commitment and, well, basically everything you would need to build a lasting and successful culture. Displayed are not the brokenhearted; it is the lost, who seem content to merely wander through life with no grand plans, no significant drive, and not even enough self-respect to demand that the person on the other end of the phone reveal themselves.
We see one lonely soul after another desperate for human connections. But, virtually none of the participants seem tied to any significant communities like a congregation where such connections can be made every day. They seem utterly sold out (judging by their tattoos and stylings) to the fads of the day. They seem unbothered by “relationships” that completely take place with two screens in-between them. There are virtually no sexual mores to consider—except desire and consent, of course.
In short, it is our idol of consumerism, even in love, that is revealed in all of its shame. As the world—again, even in love—has come to resemble something much more like a cafeteria line, one has to wonder what it will take for us to reject the buffet of options and commit to a life of purpose. In Catfish, perhaps we only see the most sold-out to consumerist mindset in love and life. But I suspect that the show sadly depicts a pretty normal portion of that generation. It is utterly alien to the world I grew up in and the world I want my children to grow up in. So again, maybe we should thank Catfish and MTV. For if one wants to see the failures of the cafeteria life, it is all there to see on full display.