When most people think of a true-crime docuseries, they assume the worst. Serial killers, human rights abuses, conspiracy theories, high-stakes heists. A fake dating profile is more likely to be the subject of “Catfish” than “Blackfish.” “Love Fraud” offers a clever rebuttal to this common documentary genre.
“Love Fraud” opens on spooky, atmospheric footage of a sleepy small town in middle America. Neon lights flash in the dark and alarm clocks read 3 a.m. For the first few minutes, the world is a dark, gritty noir film. Then, the interviews start. A woman named Tracy and her daughters describe how Tracy fell for a man named Robert Scott Smith. Kind, religious, successful and old-fashioned, he was the perfect man for Tracy.
Unfortunately, he was posing as the perfect man for dozens of other women, too. Robert Scott Smith, under a number of aliases, lured women he met on dating websites into relationships, married them and drained their bank accounts. No more than a few months after they met, he’d disappear without a trace. “Love Fraud” follows the band of jilted wives and one female bounty hunter on their mission to track down Smith, who is currently still at large, and make him answer for his crimes.
As strange as the premise may seem, “Love Fraud” is heartbreakingly real for many of its now bankrupted subjects. The series plays more like an outlandish Lifetime movie than anything resembling real life. While the show’s style is more neo-noir, the documentary crew works closely with Smith’s victims and remains an active participant in their search.
The show does involve mystery and some semblance of a plot, to give it a bit of credit. Who is Robert Scott Smith and how is he still able to get away with defrauding people of millions? Sure, after seeing the harm he caused to so many women and their families, wanting justice is understandable. In framing “Love Fraud” as a sinister crime drama though, the stakes are raised to new dramatic heights.
The four-part series feels like an intimate look into what is essentially a bunch of marital disputes, albeit across several marriages. In this sense, its documentary format bleeds into the genre of reality TV more than true-crime, as its careful marketing suggests. At times, there is a stark contrast between the light-hearted female revenge plot and a format most often reserved for documenting the worst of human nature.
The tonal shifts between tragedy and a positive girl-power message are not always smooth; the somewhat solemn task of bringing a bad man to justice is celebrated with smiles of good women. Though “Love Fraud” can feel like it wavers between two extremes, the wild premise carries the premiere through its weaker moments and keeps viewers on the side of Smith’s jilted ex-wives.
Though “Love Fraud” is unlike any other show on TV, it still feels like a familiar story, the real-life version of “Big Little Lies” or “Gone Girl.” As the band of women continues to hunt Robert Scott Smith, this Showtime series will continue to blend the pettiness of reality TV with the rhythms of great fictional mysteries.