Catfish’s secrets, from casting to therapists

A year and a half ago, I wrote about how MTV’s often compelling reality series Catfish actually casts in reverse, and therefore is catfishing viewers, because the liar is known all along. Now an MTV executive has discussed that process in depth, and it’s fascinating insight into how the show is produced.

In an interview with Vulture’s Denise Martin, MTV senior VP Marshall Eisen, who oversees the series, admits that “It’s often the catfish we hear from first because they’re looking to unburden themselves,” though he says that’s not all the time, and he ignores the part about how MTV and even Nev actively sought catfish. They haven’t shown that on TV yet because they haven’t “felt compelled,” and he insists it doesn’t matter “because we’re not doing an ambush show.”

Despite the way it’s cast, what we see on screen isn’t fake. Nev and Max–and what Vulture describes as “most of the crew”–have no idea what the outcome will be, and they actually, legitimately conduct the investigation even though producers know where they will end up. That’s taken as long as 10 hours in the past. “Our whole mantra for the guys is, ‘If you can’t figure it out, just go with it and see where it takes you,'” Eisen said. For example, in last week’s episode Antwane & Tony, producers knew all along that Antwane was being catfished by his cousin, yet they still wandered from place to place looking for a non-existent Tony.

Because of all this, everyone who appears on camera has previously signed a release and producers have run background checks. That’s kind of obvious since never in any episode I’ve seen has anyone appeared to be surprised by Nev and Max showing up at their doorstep. However, “We never know 100 percent for sure if the catfish is going to go through with this, even if they commit to filming. That’s why there is a lot of tension in those scenes when we pull up for the visit because we’re all waiting for the day when the catfish will not respond or change their mind.”

Along with the show’s popularity has come people who lie to try to get on TV, but Eisen said that now, “We just have to work harder to make sure they’re real, which we didn’t have to do at all in the first season. It’s just a pitfall of being more of a known thing.”

Finally, he revealed that everyone has contact with a therapist after filming ends: “We want to make sure that a professional is there in case the person needs it. Fortunately we haven’t had any issues after the show has aired, but we need to make sure that people are taken care of if they need to be.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.