The Magic Behind MTV’s ‘Catfish’

05.22.14 4 years ago 10 Comments

In an age where reality television shows are just a simple genre of television akin to police procedurals or sitcoms, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say no adults believes that what they depict is some 100% real account of reality. These shows, which run the gamut from Real Housewives of Atlanta to those brothers selling houses on HGTV, are at best a type of simulacrum of reality or at worst a mishmash of hyper-reality and caricatures. This foreknowledge is arguably one of the biggest draws to these types of shows.

But when given an opportunity to find out what goes on behind the wizard’s curtain, it’s hard to resist. So this article titled “Here’s How MTV’s Catfish Actually Works” from Vulture was definitely a must-read.

For the unaware, Catfish is a television series on MTV that merges three things the network does well: cater to millennials (which does include thirty-somethings), “reality TV shows”, and semi-documentaries. But instead of focusing on loud-mouthed Southern debutantes or Italian American stereotypes, it chronicles the adventures of two men attempting to help people find out if their online love interest is who they claim to be or if they’re being “Catfished.”

Each week the show has Nev and his friend Max meet up with someone, hear their (usually tragic) story, and then try to unravel the truth behind their online relationship. Hijinks generally ensue, there’s some cussing, a lot of laughs on Twitter, and then Nev and Max wrap everything up at the end via Skype.

That’s the story we all get on television, but Vulture’s interview with Marshall Eisen, SVP of news and docs at MTV, sheds some light on the inner-workings. And surprisingly they seem to do more good than bad for the show.

They list eight different noteworthy aspects of the show that most fans probably never considered or thought. Two of the most interesting tidbits are that Nev and Max are not actually in on the behind the scene mechanics and that sometimes it’s the person doing the catfishing that contacts the show first. In addition, probably the biggest piece of news the interview reveals is this little nugget:

But the waiver doesn’t guarantee cooperation.

In the season three premiere, “Craig & Zoe,” a girl named Zoe (real name Cassandra) had been caught catfishing not only online boyfriend Craig but Craig’s sister and her friends. (Craig wrote in to the show first in this case.) When Nev, Max, Craig, Craig’s sister, and the crew showed up to confront Cassandra, she was not home. Eisen said it happens. “If this had been our first season and we hadn’t had a lot of experience, we might have stopped shooting there,” he said. But since producers had already spoken with Cassandra and gotten her okay, they felt somewhat certain she would eventually turn up, which she did. But had she decided at the last minute to tell the crew to get lost? “We would have. That would have been the end of it,” Eisen said. “We never know 100 percent for sure if the catfish is going to go through with this, even if they commit to filming. That’s why there is a lot of tension in those scenes when we pull up for the visit because we’re all waiting for the day when the catfish will not respond or change their mind.” That hasn’t happened yet, but if and when it does happen, Eisen said production is prepared to pack it up. “They’re real people and they’re exposing themselves, making themselves vulnerable, and we’re never going to force them to do it,” he said.”

Combine this with the other reveals and it becomes clear why the “reveal” moment is full of so much tension that it’s damn near palpable. The rest of the interview covers some more points, but at the end I don’t think any of it harms the show’s reputation. In fact, it at least puts it above some of the other reality TV fare, but still below actually riveting MTV docu-series like True Life*.

* — I actually was filmed for two episodes of True Life but got cut out in the editing room because I wasn’t interesting enough. The first was True Life: I’m A College Athlete, they came to my undergrad. The other was True Life: I’m A Gamer, they were filming these guys who lived right next door to my first baby momma’s house.

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