MTV has long been the network with questionable youth-oriented programming: From the addicting abomination “Jersey Shore” to the prissy and entitled “My Super Sweet Sixteen” to the new, borderline-offensive “Buckwild,” there is no doubt that MTV knows its audience.
Reality shows — particularly on MTV — get a bad rap for their heightened dramatics and glorification of untraditional lifestyles (really, there’s nowhere else on television where you will find such fame in being a teenage parent). Critics love to rip on a show with trashy characters (à la Snooki taking part in irrational behavior), and for good reason. Those shows, while entertaining, don’t add much to the cultural memory of this generation beyond embarrassment for us normal folk.
However, one of the network’s newest ventures, “Catfish: The TV Show,” is decidedly un-MTV. Where other programming focused much of its energy on unnecessary drama and fistfights, “Catfish” works on a more humanistic level, bringing the network back down to reality.
For those who haven’t been swept up by the docu-show (or who avoid MTV like the plague), “Catfish” discusses online relationships that have been forged largely through social media. Taken from host Nev Schulman’s own experience, being “catfished” is to be duped into believing that the person you are conversing with online is someone different than who they actually are. Each week, Nev and his friend Max Joseph help someone meet up with their online boyfriend or girlfriend to find out whether or not they are who they say they are and to see if the relationship has a future.
If I said that there wasn’t drama, I would be lying. There’s a lot of lying that goes on in a concept like this — it is commonly accepted that people use the Internet to project an alternate personality and obtain a veil of anonymity. Girls pretend to be guys to mess with the chick that slept with their boyfriends, and people create fake profiles simply because they want to. It’s psychotic and dumb, but it’s life in the 21st century.
But drama on “Catfish” is simply a byproduct of the situation, not the main focus. Each episode discusses potent and relevant cultural issues that are largely rooted in cyber bullying. It seems often that we hear about cyber bullying cases, but it is rare to see it actually happening in real life. “Catfish” provides a window into this cyber world and simultaneously serves as a platform for important social discussion.
Take, for example, the episode “Kim and Matt,” in which a couple is united after talking online for 10 years. What kept these two apart was not shady misinformation, but rather self-esteem issues — Matt was ashamed of his obesity.
In another strong episode titled “Kya and Alyx,” we learn that Alyx isn’t actually a boy but is instead a transgendered person named Dani — a female transitioning to life as a male. In a fantastic conclusion, Kya accepts Dani for who he is and the two continue their happy romance.
It is episodes like these that really highlight the potential of the show: to open our eyes to insecurities and stigmas in our culture and address them personally. When I watch “Catfish,” I always have my Twitter feed open, and it’s disheartening to see how many negative comments roll in that discuss a person’s weight, sexual preference or physical appearance. A show like this can increase the visibility of these social issues and hopefully make room for meaningful conversation.
But Twitter user @MalachiXTEAM got it right: “Food for thought. Looking through the judgmental #catfish tweets, maybe that’s why people lie about themselves or how they look.” And that really is something to chew on.