(Spoilers ahead for the fourth episode of Catfish, which aired last night on MTV.)
Four episodes into its second season, MTV’s Catfish finally managed to put together an episode that was genuinely shocking, if only because it featured something we’ve never seen before. Nev Schulman and Max Joseph’s series has so far seen every possible permutation of potential outcomes – people who aren’t who they said they were and don’t care about their paramours, people who aren’t who they said they were and do care about their paramours, people playing pranks, people working under misguided attempts to “help” the other person, men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, and every other situation in between – well, except for one.
Catfish has never documented a relationship in which one or both parties weren’t lying to each other in some way, shape, or form. Despite the rise of Internet-based relationships and the relative normalcy of people meeting their mates online, Catfish still exists in a world where finding someone online is strange, foreign, and basically just a really cool way to get lied to and shamed on national television. Sure, it makes for great TV when people discover that their hot European vampire-loving dude is actually a transgender California girl (that happened, and it actually ended with a really sweet love connection) or that the guy they’ve been texting with for years is just some girl who was pissed off that they were talking to a shared crush (that happened too, and the results were nothing short of obscenely messy), but it’s simply not precisely “normal” anymore and the sheer volume of lies and pain often stirred up by the episodic catfish-ing can wear on the audience. It was inevitable that someone on the Catfish team finally put their foot (fin?) down and demanded an episode that was rooted in reality (and nice reality, not “I lied to you because I have low self-esteem” reality).
Conveniently enough, the subjects of last night’s episode, Lauren and Derek, do have a relationship with the maximum amount of drama to help drive along the action – including both length of time and tremendous emotional stakes. By the time Nev and Max show up to suss out some fish, the pair has been chatting for eight years (thanks, MySpace) and the very sweet Lauren can’t wait for her paramour any longer. In fact, Lauren has made some big moves even during the course of their relationship – she’s had a kid with one guy and nearly married another – but she’s always “come back” to Derek, and this simply won’t do.
Derek, of course, has refused to chat with her via webcam and has resisted meeting her in the past (even when Texan Lauren was five hours away from the Maryland-based Derek). Honestly, he just sort of sounds like a bit of a fool, but in the world of Catfish, a refusal to video chat is essentially an admission that you’re completely lying about absolutely everything in such a way that it would be obvious the moment the ol’ Skype fired up.
They even had a built-in red herring for a bit of misdirection: Lauren’s childhood friend Ryan popped up early, talked about how much her happiness meant to him, and even ultimately came along to meet Derek and help take care of her son Mason. If this was any other episode, “Derek” would have turned out to be Ryan and it would have been just as awkward as it’s been before – because this exact kind of situation has happened on Catfish before, and it will assuredly happen again.
Considering the odds that a Catfish episode would “work out” in an honest fashion stood at 15 to 0 before Lauren and Derek’s episode, it’s understandable the Nev and Max took to their favorite tool, Googling pictures, to try and solve the mystery of Derek. It’s also somewhat understandable that it seemed fairly obvious from the get-go that Nev and Max were very aware that they were dealing with a catfish of a different color and were trying their damndest to conceal the truth for as long as possible (or at least until Lauren was knocking on Derek’s door). In service to the apparent charade, Nev played the role of devil’s advocate (“What if he is who he says he is?”), while Max was tasked with acting incredulous and skeptical to the point of laughability (he spent most of the episode yelping some version of, “What is this guy hiding? Why? Who? Whyyy? What?”).
The supposed turning point featured the typically upbeat Nev smile-yelling, “There has to be some huge secret!” as if he’s now also convinced that Derek is a big lying liar. If there was ever an argument against the veracity of Catfish the movie, Nev’s shockingly terrible acting skills in this episode could (strangely enough) help back the claim that his star turn was totally real. (But that’s a discussion for another time.)
The only thing the pair can dig up is that Derek’s cell phone number is registered to a middle-aged family man whose Facebook profile may feature a picture of him on a trike, a strange sticking point for the two, as Lauren had just shared with them a text message from Derek that mentioned the two of them riding off into the sunset on a trike. Got ya, Derek! You’re not Derek! You’re a middle-aged family man who has been able to keep up this rouse for eight years! Ah ha! Your trike obsession got you! (Of note: I Googled my own cell phone number and, weirdly, a bunch of Russian language websites showed up, so God forbid I ever go on Catfish.)
Per usual, Nev and Max took to the phone themselves, dialing up Derek’s maybe-middle-aged-family-man phone number and guilting him into finally meeting Lauren. Initially reticent, Derek eventually gave in, and the whole merry troupe headed off to Maryland to meet Derek (maybe middle-aged family man). Nev and Max could barely contain their glee.
And why is that? Well, Derek had only one secret – he really was just scared of finally meeting Lauren (also, it may have been a secret that he has terrible taste in men’s jewelry, but that’s wholly forgivable). Derek wasn’t a different age or sex or color or nationality and he wasn’t married or a criminal and, without blinking, he told everyone how much he loved Lauren and how much he wanted to be with her. Nev and Max’s only reaction was to interview the pair on Derek’s sun-dappled deck, all while attempting to both act shocked by what they uncovered (read: already knew) and figure out what to do when an episode doesn’t end with a fistfight in a driveway. There’s little question the guys didn’t know what they were going to find in Maryland, but one thing does seem certain – they have no clue what to do when nice people who are simply video chat averse end up being lovely guys who actually love their MySpace meets. It seems fairly obvious we’ll never see an ending this happy again (next week’s episode preview features a potential catfish with strangely posed pictures, so it appears we’ll be getting another driveway fistfight soon enough).
At the very least, the episode provided us with such gems as Max yelping, “this girl broke off her engagement because this guy who wouldn’t video chat with her deleted her from Facebook?” (Catfish pretty much in a nutshell) and Lauren’s stepmother Melinda gently asking Nev and Max, “So who are you again?” (classic).