Last Night’s Catfish Just Wanted to Be on ‘Catfish’ — So What Does That Mean for the Show’s Future?

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Catfish has been a bona fide hit for MTV and is quickly becoming one of the most talked about (see: livetweeted) shows on the Internet, with some episodes featuring surprising twists and turns that are legitimately engaging, sometimes on par with TV’s scripted dramas. Now in its third season, Catfish has the fans but needs to continue to find ways to shock us. Last week’s season premiere was a dud, but this week’s “Antwane & Tony” proved that Catfish still has some tricks up its sleeve.

Antwane & Tony” even started with a twist. The catfish-ee wasn’t the one to call Internet detectives Max and Nev; instead, his cousin Carmen made first contact. She’s concerned about Antwane’s relationship with Tony, a man he met on a chat line. That’s the other thing that feels off about this episode: there is no Internet involved. Antwane didn’t meet Tony online, has never used video chat, and their entire relationship is based on an anonymous phone-chat line. As Max points out, this episode could’ve taken place in the ’90s. So Tony and Antwane have been talking for three years. First Tony would call from a listed number, then suddenly it was private. Antwane never called Tony; everything was always on Tony’s terms.

The original phone number leads everyone on a wild goose chase. They find someone with a similar name (“Anthony”) and learn that he’s in jail, which could explain why Tony’s number is private and why he needs to talk on his schedule. The four of them pack into a car and knock on three doors of places where this Anthony (or relatives) could live. After searching around a third, abandoned house (this episode is pretty creepy, actually), Carmen just suddenly blurts out: Antwane can’t find Tony because Carmen is Tony. What?!

Everyone — Antwane, Max, Nev, me — is confused. Carmen continues, saying that she pulled this awful three-year prank on Antwane to get revenge because he once called her a “fat-ass Kelly Price,” and it’s easy to infer that he “jokingly” insults her all the time, not realizing how much it bothers her. We also learn that Carmen catfishes people constantly and that she’s basically in this for the 15 minutes of fame — “I could’ve been on any show,” she boasts to the camera — as Max and Nev get increasingly angry.

Is this the season that Catfish eats itself? I’m reminded of later Real World seasons, when contestants knew how to act in order to get cast. It’s reality self-awareness: the buzz phrases that producers look for (“I don’t get along with other girls”) and the cast profiles they fit into (“I’m a small-town Christian”). The same could be said of Catfish‘s Carmen, who knew how to concoct a story that would cater to Nev and Max’s. All the necessary elements are there; she just needs the camera crew.

Catfish has a simple formula, so it’s conceivable (and easy) for a person seeking attention to create a situation that fits it. It’s a quick way to get your 15 minutes. In one scene, Max tries to break down Carmen’s motivations by hilariously explaining to Nev what “infamous” means. He’s right, though. Who do you remember from past seasons of Catfish? I can’t picture any of the “victims,” but I clearly recall the girl who pretended to be Bow Wow, the remorseless Skylar Hazen with the most obvious fake name, and the shaggy-haired, possibly psychopathic slow-clapper. Next year, we’ll remember Carmen.

It’s also possible that the two of them, Carmen and Antwane, are in this together (the lack of Internet/text messaging could be a clue: it’s harder for Max and Nev to investigate if there is no proof of this “relationship” or record of conversations). I don’t buy this, but on the off chance that it is true, it’s the best dupe of an unscripted show since broke kids scammed their way onto Judge Judy.

Antwane and Carmen ride back in separate cars (as “cynical rock music” plays, according to my closed captioning), Carmen with a previously unseen producer who continues to pry. During the couch interview, tempers flare. Carmen tells Nev, in no uncertain terms, “You ain’t shit,” and Nev repeats this back to her, mockingly. A producer quickly steps in and takes Max and Nev outside. “You’re sabotaging your own show,” the subtitles read. We’ve gone full meta-Catfish now, breaking down the reality show fourth wall as a producer scolds Nev for making fun of the way Carmen talks and then orders them back inside to hear her side — even though neither of them wants to do it. (Nev complains that maybe Carmen doesn’t deserve couch time, and the line is delivered in a way that’s reminiscent of a petulant teen scoffing and kicking rocks.)

Is this contrived? Possibly! All reality shows are contrived or exaggerated, and Catfish can’t be any different, even though they swear up and down it’s true. But if this scene was all planned, it was perfectly planned. There is no screaming or throwing chairs, but a quieter anger and confusion that feels very real. There is no escalation; Nev is removed from the room at the very moment he does something dick-ish.

But here’s the thing about Catfish: It’s a show that is about exposing fakes, and it’s a show that wears both its heart and its authenticity on its sleeve at all times. It manages to, within an hour, make the viewer run the gamut of emotions: I actually care about these people for some reason! And this makes me completely suspend my disbelief while watching — more than any other reality show that eats up my time. I want every single moment on Catfish to be real, and so I take it as truth. Yes, Catfish is probably catfishing me and making me fall in love with a show that isn’t what it claims to be. I’m OK with that, but a little worried that Catfish may become a victim of itself.