Tonight is the season premiere of MTV’s Catfish, the wildly popular sleuthing show starring digital detectives Nev Schulman and Max Joseph.
Now in its third year, the show is set to up the ante with wilder stories, slipperier catfish and crazier endings than ever before. With higher stakes, one question that’s followed the show since Day No. 1 is seems more relevant than ever: Is Catfish real?
Questions about Catfish‘s authenticity actually predate the MTV show. In 2010, Nev, big brother/filmmaker Ariel Schulman and friend/filmmaker Henry Joost set out to track down the mysterious Michigan woman Nev was chatting with online.
The documentary picked up with Nev explaining how he fell in love online. The men then set out on a cross-country road trip to finally meet the woman on the other end. And — spoiler — it turned out Nev was speaking with a middle-aged mother who spent her days caring for her two severely mentally disabled stepsons.
The story was undeniably incredible… But, was it too incredible?
“People are surprised we started filming as early as we did, but truth is, we’ve been filming each other for years, and we’re always prepared,” Ariel Schulman said in 2010. “I’ve got this brother who is just very charismatic and gets into a lot of trouble and gets himself into situations, and if I’m not filming him, I usually regret it.”
Henry Joost added they had no idea where the story was headed when they began filming, but Nev’s whole relationship with the woman was engrossing enough they decided to take a chance on it.
“It is a documentary in that it’s something that actually happened and we filmed it and none of it is staged or fake,” Henry said, adding they were taken aback with questions about the film’s authenticity. “Morgan Spurlock went up to somebody on our team and went, ‘That is the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen.’ We were like, ‘Really?’ Because how do you react to that in our shoes? It’s kind of strange, because to us, there’s no debate; that’s what happened. I think what people are reacting to a lot is, the film is edited. We can’t put out a 250-hour movie, so we’re making decisions and streamlining the narrative and presenting what we feel is the clearest representation of what happened, but it’s real, and there’s nothing disingenuous about it.”
The debate was renewed two years later when Nev and Max (along with Ariel and Henry in producing capacities) revamped the concept for MTV. But, in this case, there seems to be a bit more evidence the show is creatively engineered: In an unknown number of the cases, it’s the catfish who reaches out to MTV, rather than the other way around. (That’s how it’s done in the Catfish UK casting call.)
“You know how they said that [the catfishee] had reached out to them?” a participant told Hollywood.com in Feb. 2013, asking for anonymity because of the MTV contract. “I don’t know why they put that in there because it’s not even true. It was actually me that reached out to them.”
Going on the record, catfish Joe Sumeriski told WHAM he was suspicious when MTV got in contact with him “out of the blue.” (On the show, he was portrayed as the one who reached out to Nev and Max.)
From a logistical standpoint, this makes a lot more sense for producers… Otherwise they could run into the problems when the catfish refused to meet after a lot of time and money was already spent on staging the meeting with the catfishee. (When Nev makes the call to the catfish in the show, the person on the end of the line is often resistant to the idea of meeting, but always caves. Now you know why.)
Despite that little discrepancy, insiders/former participants say many other parts of the show are authentic. For example, Nev and Max are kept in the dark about specifics of the investigation, so their reactions are genuine. The catfishee also isn’t aware of who they’ll encounter at the climatic meeting.
Still, there have been a few instances when either the catfish or catfishee has been dissatisfied with the final edit of the episode.
“Really, I’m just frustrated that people don’t know the whole story,” one participant told Hollywood.com. Others have voiced frustrations with the “identities” MTV pushed on them, such as portraying them to be questioning their sexuality when that wasn’t actually an issue.
Speaking to Flavorwire this month, Nev also maintained they “never do a second takes.” Nev and Max also denied claims the show is reverse-engineered.
Whatever is the truth about how the show is produced — and even that likely varies from show to show — one thing’s for sure: Catfish is entertaining to watch. And, personally, I’ll sacrifice a teeny-tiny bit of authenticity if it makes for good TV.
Catfish returns to MTV tonight at 10/9c.