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‘Catfish: The TV Show’ on MTV looks into online relationships

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times –

When Jarrod Musselwhite, a 27-year-old single dad from rural Georgia, was feeling confused about his relationship with a girl he’d met online, there was one person he thought could help: an appealingly goofy New York photographer named Nev Schulman.

Though an unlikely companion for the high-school-educated rocker, Schulman was no stranger to what Musselwhite was feeling. A protagonist of the controversial 2010 documentary “Catfish,” Schulman had himself gone through a virtual romance that didn’t turn out as expected.

“You’ve been through this, so I’d love to have you with me when I meet her,” Musselwhite told Schulman, adding that the experience would be “the greatest gift I could ever receive.”

Musselwhite’s story appears in “Catfish: The TV Show,” a reality series about online relationships premiering Monday on MTV. In the program, people who have carried on relationships for months or even years with someone they’ve never met call on Schulman and his friend Max Joseph to guide them through a real-life rendezvous. Invariably, things don’t go as planned.

“Catfish: The TV Show” has the rare distinction of being a cable series that began life as a Sundance Film Festival documentary, and perhaps the even more uncommon aim of devoting its airtime to the challenges of online dating. “I want to connect people with each other in the same way I tried to find connection in my film,” Schulman said in an interview last week.

But as it seeks to tell a zeitgeist-y story about love in the time of Facebook, “Catfish: The TV Show” raises complex questions about self-perception and digital identity — and ethical concerns about training a camera on people during some uncomfortably intimate moments.

It also stirs the ghost of a movie that drew plenty of hard-core fans and nearly as many skeptics.

“Catfish” told a compelling story. Schulman falls head over heels with Megan, a 19-year-old Midwesterner he interacts with only online. His brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost, both filmmakers, record him in his infatuatory bliss. But red flags soon appear, and by the end of the movie Schulman and the filmmakers have journeyed to Michigan, where they learn that Megan is not a 19-year-old hottie but Angela, a much older housewife living in difficult economic conditions with a pair of mentally disabled stepchildren. In an elaborate bid to cure her loneliness, Angela had created a fictitious persona using a series of fake Web pages and recently acquired cellphones.

Though the film received a strong reception at Sundance, documentarians including Morgan Spurlock as well as some pundits called it a fake; the website Movieline described “Catfish” as having “a truth problem.” At the very least, skeptics said, filmmakers knew more than they let on as they were making the movie. At most, they staged parts of it.

Schulman maintains every moment in the film occurred as presented. He also said “Catfish” generated a much different reaction behind the scenes.

“I was shocked by the response I got from people who had experienced similar things,” he said. “People sought me out. They felt like they could tell me things they’ve never told anyone.”

A TV show was born. The entertainment company Relativity Media, which had acquired the film after Sundance, began developing the stories Schulman was hearing about, using RelativityReal, its TV unit behind nonscripted series such as GSN’s “The American Bible Challenge.” The project soon landed at MTV, where the division behind the acclaimed “True Life” docu-series set out to turn it into a weekly reality show.

“I was struck by the universal truths, the mystery of it,” said Dave Sirulnick, who runs the MTV division. “There are very few documentaries that you can imagine taking to a TV series. But Nev’s story was amazing, and we knew stories like this were happening with so many other young people.” (Joost and Ariel Schulman are executive producers, but took a more supervisory role as they concentrated on directing the two most recent “Paranormal Activity” films.)

Creators say they want to avoid the kind of “gotcha” journalism practiced by many TV newsmagazines that do pieces on this subject. As a result, they spend the second half of every episode following the object of their hero’s affections.

“We’re a thousand miles away from ‘To Catch a Predator,’” said Tom Forman, chief executive of RelativityReal. “There’s an amazing moment where a mystery is solved, yes, but we’re interested in the fallout, in who’s on the other end of the computer screen. They’re usually not bad people, just looking for a connection too.”

The resolutions on “Catfish: The TV Show” aren’t always happy — Musselwhite’s slow awakening to the realization that his girlfriend isn’t the person he believed her to be is almost painful to watch — but principals say that a fairy-tale ending is beside the point.

“The thing about meeting someone online is that people can avoid the insecurities many of us have about physical interactions,” Schulman said. “So they get much more intimate and involved, and they’re not always prepared to deal with that. We want to provide an opportunity to discuss that.”

Sirulnick added that the series speaks in another way to how young people live now. “What’s at the heart of the show is this paradox: Communicating with new people has never been easier. And yet it’s also never been easier to put up a front in that communication.”

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