Formats Unpacked: Catfish

How a format introduced a new phrase to the world

Hi All,

It’s great to be back after the summer break. Well, I say break. I’ve just been working on a bunch of radio stories about the history of drag and didn’t have time to write or find a writer.

We return with a format that not only captured a huge amount of attention when it landed but also introduced a new phrase into the lexicon.

Doing the unpacking is the awesome Kat Sommers. Kat is a comedy writer, whose latest series of her sitcom Charlotte & Lillian starts going out on BBC Radio 4 in October. She also writes podcasts and TV, and has lots of opinions about Married at First Sight

Over to Kat…


What's it called?

Catfish (TV Show. Not to be confused with Catfish: The Documentary, the 2010 film that kicked the whole thing off).

What's the format?

Each episode meets someone convinced they’re talking to the love of their life. There’s just one problem: they haven’t met. Like, ever. They’ve just been chatting online for weeks, sometimes months, even years, without so much as a video chat. 

The same things arouse their suspicions, every time. Their love interest becomes cagey when it comes to meeting up: their car breaks down, a family member suddenly takes ill, or they're just super busy being an international model studying for a medical degree while simultaneously dying of cancer.

Something ain’t right. They’re starting to wonder if they’ve fallen for a “catfish”, or someone using fake photos to pretend to be someone they’re not. 

Enter hosts Nev and Kamie, whose job it is to track down the person behind the computer screen once and for all. Armed with multiple shaky cams (so far, so MTV reality show), they carry out the kind of desk research anyone who’s spent any time internet stalking an ex’s new girlfriend will recognise, so googling phone records (ahem), hitting up mutuals, running reverse image searches on every profile pic.

Eventually, they have enough info to confront their new friend’s elusive love interest, whether that’s over zoom during a pandemic or in some random park (it’s always a park, for some reason, like some high-powered, clandestine spy-off). 

What's the magic that makes it special?

I have to admit, the lure of each episode is stomach-crumpling schadenfreude. Right from the get-go, there are whacking big clues that this lovelorn chump is about to get CRUSHED. 

But – and it’s a big but – that feeling doesn’t last long, because what makes this show great is its total lack of cynicism.

That may not sound like much, but right now it feels radical. Nowadays it seems as if the thing we’re most afraid of is being deceived, having the wool pulled down over our eyes, or getting “punked”, to use another MTV phrase. More than anything, we hate to admit we’ve been naive, or fallen for the wrong person, so much so we’re unwilling to believe anything at all, and when other people do, their disillusionment becomes our entertainment.

Catfish, though, doesn’t set out to make catfishees look stupid. That’s partly down to the show’s host Nev Schulman, about a guileless and goofily open as a person can be. While co-host Kamie (and Max before her) is usually onto the catfish pretty quick, Nev always comes off as winsomely credulous, prepared to believe that maybe, just maybe, this person is who they say they are, and even if they're not, they have a good reason for making stuff up. 

It’s no wonder why, because Nev was the original catfishee. It was him who, at a young age, went to meet the young, beautiful singer-songwriter he’d fallen for on Facebook, and found a middle-aged woman in Michigan instead, while the whole thing was filmed by – of all people – his older brother and his brother’s friend for the documentary that coined the term “catfish” in the first place.

So Nev strongly identifies with the person who's fallen for someone on the internet, even if that person is convinced he’s been talking to Katy Perry for six years (spoiler: he’s not been talking to Katy Perry for six years). And even when, confronted with the woman he’s actually been talking to, the guy still can’t let go of his Katy Perry dream, Nev reserves his ire for the smirking catfish: "As weird and crazy as he may be," he tells her, "he has a heart, and he was giving it to you, for six years."

Oof. Am I saying Catfish is a corrective to all the cynicism in society right now? You betcha I am. Sure, there’s a big old dramatic reveal in every episode that gets my snidey senses tingling, but the show doesn’t snigger at its subject’s naivety, like its predecessor Punk’d did. 

Any drama is always followed by a big heart-to-heart, which digs deeper into why the two people got involved as much as they did. It questions why someone would want to deceive in the first place, and usually finds some pretty sad answers. And at every twist and turn, the messages they shared flash up on the screen, reminding us how "real" the relationship seemed – to one person, at least. 

In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the antidote for all the world’s ills (except covid, of course, the antidote to that is still the vaccine).

Favourite episode?

I could list the craziest episodes here, where "Jess" turned out to be a guy called Justin whose demented clapping turned him into a meme, or the one where the catfishee knew her catfish all too well, or when one catfish invented the whole thing out of revenge for being called a "fatass Kelly Price"

And then there’s the episodes Nev fans will appreciate: the one when he gets angry with an unrepentant catfish, or when he throws another catfish’s phone in the lake.

But honestly? The best episodes are often when the supposed catfish, despite all the red flags and dodgy behaviour, turns out to be exactly who they say they are, and my faith in humanity is restored. Like when Lauren finally met Derek in season 2. Awww. (WHO AM I?) 

Similar formats

Catfish has just transferred to the ever-ironic UK, and, amazingly, hasn’t lost any of its charm. Hosted by Julie Adenuga and Oobah Butler, one episode manages to single-handedly banish cynicism forever when a catfish turns out to be an actual, bona fide Nigerian prince.

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Thanks Kat,

Reading this has really made me want to revisit the show and give it another go. That’s one of the great things about Formats Unpacked, it’s not just insights about formats from smart people, it’s a great recommendation tool for formats you might have missed or not paid enough attention to.

Do you have a format that you feel people need to pay more attention to? If so, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,

Hugh