While the good folks in charge of programming at MTV might not have known just how bad this year’s Video Music Awards were going to be (read: pretty bad, thanks to Miley Cyrus’ complete transformation into a culture-appropriating pop art nightmare and twenty seconds of *NSYNC attempting to fire up the Nostalgia Machine, amongst so many other things), they must have known just how incredible the latest episode of Catfish was going to be. After all, they moved the episode from its normal Tuesday night slot in order to serve as the lead in to the VMA pre-show and the actual ceremony itself. The result? Approximately four and a half hours of television that left our collective jaws on the floor. Hyperbole aside, I watched just about every minute of this stuff with my mouth hanging open, only pausing to routinely ask, “what the hell is going on? What the hell is going on?”
Catfish has, in only its second season, reached its pinnacle. Even though hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph already promised fans a very new breed of Catfish in the season’s second half (this news was delivered during the show’s midseason break, presumably months after the episode had been filmed, and Nev and Max still looked bewildered while talking about), there was no way anyone could have been prepared for what happened during the “Artis and Jess” episode, if only because it reminded us that reality television can still be unexpected, original, and just completely bizarre. If this one was scripted, the team at Catfish needs to be locked up, because they’re nuts.
Like most episodes of Catfish, this one begins with a hotel room and a sad email. Artis has been chatting with a lady on Facebook for months now – the sort of lady he’s always hoped for, someone funny and understanding and beautiful – but there’s a hitch. Well, there are a few hitches. Artis and his Jess have never spoken on the phone (by now, Catfish fans know it’s bad news when someone won’t video chat, but nearly everyone talks on the phone, right?), and that’s because she has a highly controlling boyfriend who would kill her if he found out she was talking to another guy. Oh, and Artis also has a girlfriend. Oh, and they both live with their significant others. Nev and Max agree to help, but with one condition – Artis has to break up with his girlfriend first. While Artis is busy doing that, Max and Nev get down to fishing – and turning up precious little about the mysterious “Jess Venny.” Once they actually engage with her (via Facebook message, no phone calls), they finally plan a meet-up with the newly-single and a desperate-sounding Jess at a local park.
Who would show up? A pinup babe like Jess portrayed herself to be? Artis’ girlfriend, pulling a great ruse? A lonely introvert apologizing for her lies, but still bent on convincing Artis that her ardor was real? Jess’ overbearing boyfriend? A buddy pulling a prank? A tousle-haired lunatic who bursts forth from a car, slow-clapping in a way so menacing that it would fit more appropriately into a horror film, who somehow gets in the face of everyone involved without being slapped, simply because no one knows who the fuck he is?
Did you pick the last one? No, probably not, but that’s what we got. While it may be a failure on my part that I don’t feel able to accurately describe what happened with my own words, it is a credit to Catfish that they were finally able to surprise their audience – even if they needed a man who was a) clearly disturbed, b) possibly on drugs, c) potentially acting to deliver the bang. “Jess” is Justin, and his motives and emotions were delivered to a terrified Nev and Max and an embarrassed Artis by way of a mad scramble of words, a possible confession of confused sexuality, and what appears to be some sort of personal vendetta against cheating. It was inexplicable and totally terrifying. It was must-watch television of the highest order.
It didn’t stop there – once Justin had gathered himself (as much as Justin seemed able to gather himself), Artis had weathered the shock of discovering he’d spend five months talking to a guy (no, Artis, the real shock here was that you spent five months talking to a sociopath), Nev had steadied himself on his crutches (thanks to an apparent gym injury), and Max had continued his work as the show’s MVP (yelling out that he didn’t want to be left alone with Justin was the cherry on top of an incredible meeting), it only got more insane.
As is always the case with their catfish, Nev and Max wanted to meet Justin the next day to reevaluate what had happened and to get a better sense of why it had happened. Justin, unhinged as ever, greeted the pair at his own door and while Nev tried to make small talk about the nice dog in the home’s yard, Justin would only bark that it wasn’t his dog and it didn’t matter whose it was. Okay. The after-incident-interview was like something out of a terrible acting reel – Justin manically flitting around, hitting emotional talking points about previously being homeless and discovering the body of his dead father and how he loves his girlfriend who may have actually saved him from his own death (sure, if any of this is true, it’s very touching stuff, but Justin seems incapable of saying not only anything true but anything that’s even coherent). Justin seemed both unreal and too real, and the result was unexpected – it somehow normalized everything else that had ever happened on Catfish. Suddenly, all of it was believable, simply because nothing else could ever compare to the insanity of whatever the hell Justin was trying to sell.
The show’s second season has already been punctuated by some truly unique episodes – including the episode where everyone was actually who they said they were and there was a happy ending (a rarity on the show) and the episode that gave us The Great Catfish Villain Named Skylar AKA Bryan (the guy who strung girls along simply to practice his dating skills, which has to be the worst way to practice dating skills imaginable). The second season has also been notable for the emergence of what appear to be true emotions from its hosts – that Great Villain episode featured an enraged Max (truly coming out of his shell) and an enraged Nev, with the pair both so overcome that it seemed inevitable that they’d smack around the Great Villain (of course, they didn’t, but it was important that it even felt that such a thing could happen, even for a second).
And yet “Artis and Jess” is a catfish of another color – one that is so outsized and so insane that it reads as impossible, and then obvious. It’s the pinnacle and the progression of the show, and it guarantees only one thing – things on Catfish will never be the same ever again. Anything is truly possible, even the most strange and most unexpected thing.