Kicking off in 2012 on MTV, Catfish: The TV Show was, quite honestly, incredible. Hot, hairy Nev Schulmann and his silver-fox sidekick Max Joseph would travel all over the US, helping out lovelorn Americans who had fallen for gorgeous models … all of whom had a broken iPhone camera, so they couldn’t FaceTime. Or Skype. Or get on a webcam. Or meet up. No, nothing dodgy: they were just really busy with their international modelling career. Honest.
Early episodes of the show – based on Nev’s real-life experience of being tricked by a stranger on Facebook, documented in the 2010 film Catfish – were compulsive viewing. Each week, Catfishees (or, as the show called them, “hopefuls”) would pour their heart out to over-enthusiastic Nev, only for cynic and realist Max to jump in and point out how weird it was that they were sending their internet boyfriend or girlfriend hundreds of dollars, and they hadn’t spent any of it on getting their phone camera fixed.
Nev and Max would then fly across the country, hole up in a hotel room, do some research (ie type the Catfish’s name into Google), quickly work out that something wasn’t right, and then confront them at home. Dazzled by the idea of being on telly, most Catfishes would sit down with the hosts and explain why they did it. OK, so once it was someone’s cousin getting revenge on them for being a bitch to them, and another time it was a love rival wanting to ruin a girl’s life for dating her ex, but most of the time it was heartwarming: people who weren’t exactly model material just wanting someone to love them for their personality, transgender people trying to find love, or school kids too shy to approach their crush. At the end of the show, the Catfish and the hopeful would meet, bond and inevitably hug it out. And that’s not even mentioning the classic episode with the 19-year-old farmhand who was convinced he was dating Miss United States Teen 2003 and Playboy model Kari Ann Peniche, or the hopeful who thought she was dating Bow Wow after “he” sent her $10,000 – but it was actually a female rapper called Dee from Atlanta who did a great impression of him.
But then Catfish jumped the shark with Lauren and Derek, who’d been writing to each other online for eight years but had never met or video-chatted. And guess what? Both Lauren and Derek were exactly who they said they were on the internet and in photos but were just too skint to fly across the US. Annoying! This wasn’t Catfish, this was Penpals Who Fancy Each Other. Rename the show!
Basically, Catfish became a victim of its own success. The word “catfish” moved into popular lexicon and, armed with Google’s reverse image search and next-level Instagram stalking skills, we’re all internet detectives now. After that, Catfish got worse and worse – first, Nev became extremely problematic with some off-screen issues, then Max left, and now Nev is stuck with a series of rotating hosts. Look, it gave us some great gifts (like the word catfish), and taught us all how to reverse Google image search, but now, Catfish, we have bigger fish to fry.