Why Catfish Matters

Season two of MTV docu-series Catfish: The TV Show debuted to 2.5 million viewers, and was the number one cable telecast of the day among viewers ages 12-34, a demo otherwise known as Millennials. The show is a hit, and signifies larger shifts in reality TV tastes and their entertainment desires. Here are some of the reasons that Catfish matters, and what it says about Millennial viewers.

 It puts the real back into reality.

It might seem ironic that realness is so big a part of a show about people who are on TV for telling lies, but one reason that Catfish matters is that it is telling the truth about real lives of real people. We talk a lot about authenticity and Millennials’ desire to know all the facts and be told the truth. Though reality TV has a genre name that implies it is all real all the time, Millennial viewers have gotten used to the fact that reality shows are staged, and that “unscripted” programs most likely have a staff of writers working behind the scenes. Catfish shows a shift in the genre, and a re-emphasis on the showcasing of real lives, real emotions, and real moments. If it ever came out that elements of Catfish were faked, there is a good chance that it would seriously damage or even end the show. Actual reality in this case is a vital part of what makes the show successful. Millennials want real, and Catfish serves it up in a way that few shows aimed at them in the past have done.

 It is anti-aspiration.

There are no makeovers here, and most likely not even a happy ending for the young people who participate. Watching Catfish is not about wanting what you see. When hosts Nev and Max pull up to the house of the catfish, they are usually visiting humble places, in small towns. The young people on the show are often unhappy with where they are and who they are, and trying to escape their realities by creating fake worlds and relationships online. Sometimes it’s their embarrassment and unhappiness about how they look and live that keeps them from meeting the person they have been talking to online. The reality TV genre for younger viewers has been made up in the past by a significant amount of programming showcasing the lives of the stylish and wealthy (see The Hills, etc.), the ridiculous and over-the-top (see Jersey Shore), or the super-talented and dramatic (see Project Runway, Top Model, etc.). These shows highlight lifestyles and personalities that viewers were often meant to aspire to in some way. Catfish signifies a much bigger change in taste that has occurred over the last several years when it comes to the reality genre. It’s a show about the most regular of young people with everyday struggles, and is what young viewers are looking for right now.

It’s about being imperfect.

Catfish is an imperfect show about imperfect people. Nev Schulman, the host of the show, is imperfect himself: his own catfishing story was the origin of the show and he has been where the young people he meets are right now. The New York Times article covering the season two premiere was titled “Being Had, and Letting the World See You Fall.” This defines another reason that the show is important when it comes to entertainment shifts: Catfish is about putting flaws and imperfections on display, for all involved. Even the way it is shot is purposefully unpolished, purposefully imperfect. And for viewers, Catfish is not about making fun of the young people participating, as many reality shows in the past have been. It’s not “so-bad-it’s-good” entertainment, and there is no making light of the situations these young people are in, no matter how ridiculous the stories they have become a part of might be. The imperfections on display are taken seriously, and viewers commiserate with and root for the young participants because of those flaws.

It highlights an unexamined piece of the Millennial digital experience.

When we wrote about reality TV as part of our Serious Faux Pas series in May we mentioned that many of the issues showcased on The Real World when it began in the ‘90s no longer resonate with Millennials today, so the roommates on the show (and characters on reality TV in general) have become caricatures in order to attract younger viewers. Catfish is all about an experience that is particularly relevant to Millennial viewers. It hones in on being fooled by fake profiles online, a problem that is indicative of a larger issue that Millennials are dealing with daily basis: navigating their online and offline worlds in a world with new rules. Millennials are often presented as the digital natives who have the world of technology figured out. But the reality is that they are First Generation Digital: the first to be navigating the new waters of online and offline and figuring out what to believe. Catfish matters because it shines the light on their struggles in piecing together the way the world works in the digital age. It’s not always easy, or pretty, and even if young viewers haven’t experienced anything like the stories on Catfish they can understand a lot of that confusion. 

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