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Forrest’s father, Mr. MacNeil, was in danger from the moment he appeared, and as his houses burned down and he took a gunshot, my anxiety for him only increased. Every episode, I brace to witness his horrible, needless death. So much of Review’s devastation happens on camera, in a hail of bullets or a raging fire (or another hail of bullets and another raging fire), frankly showing the toll the show takes on Forrest—and on those who support him. But Review is trying a fresh tactic: patience.

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The first assignment, catfishing an unsuspecting internet dater, takes patience, too. Forrest first has to learn what catfishing is, then learn how to do it. “Seems like a crazy waste of time for the catfisher,” Mr. MacNeil chimes in from his spot on the office floor; since his second home was burned down, Mr. MacNeil and Forrest sleep on the small office floor, ceding the couch to Josh and Tina, who have secretly been squatting for months.

Lucille needs to be patient, too, and she barely manages it. “We’ve been through this,” she tells Forrest when he asks for “the HTML website address for Googling things,” and Tara Karsian’s ponderous spelling out of www.google.com, along with Andy Daly’s quick affirmatives after each letter, makes one of the most entertaining, exhausting minutes in a consistently entertaining, exhausting series.

Mr. MacNeil’s appreciative “Boy, she really knows her stuff, huh?” after this exchange only makes me sorrier about his ongoing ruination. Mr. MacNeil (a photo credit on Comedy Central’s press site mentions his first name, but until it’s revealed in-series, let’s assume it’s as hidden from us as Mrs. Greenfield’s) is impressively game in general, bunking down on the office floor, learning new dance moves from Josh and Tina, joining Forrest for a night in a haunted house. He also contributes the most affecting line to Forrest’s phony dating profile: “He’s known heartbreak but has no baggage.” Tina and Lucille both gasp in admiration.

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With the whole team crafting an irresistible persona, he should have no trouble catfishing a stranger, but even a simple assignment is never simple in Forrest’s hands. The fictional Ace Shrift (an anagram of “catfisher”) has no baggage, but Forrest has plenty. When he sees Suzanne’s profile, he can’t resist seeking her out for “a little harmless payback.”

Forrest scorns the insight offered by Tina, an experienced catfisher, who dupes people “for power, or boredom, or when you just have 30 minutes before a thing,” but he has more in common with her than he realizes. He revels in the power his deception provides, in having “the upper hand” over the woman who broke his heart—by refusing to reconcile with the husband who divorced her without warning or explanation, whose erratic behavior endangers and embarrasses their son, and who, right or wrong, she blames for her father’s death.

Andy Daly, H. Michael Croner, Haley Huntley, Tara Karsian, Max Gail

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It seems like an uncharacteristic vein of naked cruelty from Forrest. His motivations are typically cloaked in the mantle of objectivity, and they’re always clouded by blame-shifting and self-deception. But this is an example of his self-deception: Forrest’s impulse “to toy with her heart as she had toyed with mine” cloaks a buried desire to reconnect with Suzanne, even if it’s only the false connection Ace Shrift allows him. As they chat late into the night, his face lit by the computer screen “like a scary nightlight,” his smile is one of joy, not vengeance. As he logs off, he types the truth: “Goodnight, sweet Suzanne. I miss you,” remembering at the last moment to add, “though we have never ever met.”

Forrest will do whatever it takes to nurture this pathetic lifeline to his former marriage, including blowing his retirement fund to hire the “uncomplicated-looking dullard” whose photo appears as his avatar, continuing the charade. Fortunately—or maybe not—for Forrest, he accidentally selected a professional baseball player with a pre-set appearance fee and few qualms about a shady setup, and soon Joe Dale Jr. (Christopher Wolfe) is Skyping with Suzanne. As the saying goes, eavesdroppers seldom hear anything good of themselves, and it stings Forrest to hear his ex-wife describe their marriage as “a gigantic detour” from which she’s ready to move on.

“Catfish, Haunted House” is full of red herrings, including Forrest’s long story about Charles “Oscar” Swettington, the most popular boy in school and the tale of the murderer down the street whose house is reputedly haunted by an unrelated ghost. The planned night in a haunted house is another red herring. Taking his dad along (“for the purposes of father-son bonding and also because I was scared”) to the scariest house in their old neighborhood, Forrest quickly abandons Mr. MacNeil, instead breaking into the house he once shared with Suzanne and Eric. He’s moved on to this next assignment, but he hasn’t moved on from reliving life with Suzanne.

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“There is a ghost haunting this house tonight. It’s me.”

In a flash of insight, Forrest says, “We create phantoms to avoid thinking about our own frightening or sad realities.” He doesn’t notice, however, that he used the phantom of Ace Shrift (whom he even describes as “this made-up phantom”) to escape the sad reality in which Suzanne is not in love with him. Taking a tour of their former home, Forrest turns his history into its own ghost story. “Do they have any idea what came before them in this space?” he wonders of the new owners. He romanticizes the past the rooms conjure up for him, imagining “a realm where we didn’t get divorced” and wallowing in “the slaughter of my former life.” After Forrest’s drunken melodrama, his stabbing at the hands of Grandma Chao (Nancy Yee), alone in the house while her family is on vacation, is almost anticlimactic. Forrest has already visited worse horrors on himself this night than a mere punctured intestine or a fall down the stairs.

That’s the heart of the denial that keeps Forrest going. He’s able to ignore the disastrous effect Review has had on his life, on his body, on his family, and he tacitly expects the people around him to do the same. And sometimes they do: Mr. MacNeil sleeps uncomplainingly on an office floor, in a broken-down haunted house, anywhere the son who burned down his two—two!—homes (and who persists in describing their destruction as “freakish” events visited upon them from outside) wants him to.

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Sometimes, the lack of histrionics conveys its own horror, like Forrest shrugging off the knife wound (“I’m building up a pretty good tolerance to physical pain, so no big deal”), or his former neighbor Gene’s apprehensive reserve at seeing Forrest skulking around his old haunts, or the unknown fate of Mr. MacNeil, whom Forrest left alone and asleep in the derelict house. There’s a terrible power in these omissions. “Catfish, Haunted House” functions as a caesura, a pause that emphasizes what comes before and after. It gives the audience room to ponder what might be unfolding off-camera, and how much worse it could be than what is playing out on the screen.

Stray observations

  • Forrest’s reviews: catfishing, three stars; spending a night in a haunted house, one star.
  • Forrest continues to confuse the general experiences he’s assigned with the extremely specific, personally peculiar situations he creates. Of catfishing, he says, “there’s a part in the middle there where the catfisher tricks his ex-wife into believing that she will find happiness with some fictitious person and though it’s brief—and, in retrospect, pretty disgusting—in the moment, it’s breathtaking.”
  • It takes Forrest 45 minutes to paste a headshot lifted from an image search into his dating profile. He might do better to stick to posted mail, or as A.J. calls it, “our very first ever old person pen pal!”
  • “I was instantly matched with a number of enticing ladies and several nutjobs from all over the world.” Yup, that’s internet dating, all right.
  • Joe Dale Jr., shuts down the conversation with Suzanne quickly, but who else suspects he’s just hustling Forrest and Grant out before he reaches out to her again?
  • Forrest emptying his retirement fund to hire the “shortstopman” indicates his experiences aren’t entirely underwritten by the show. “That was the best $40,000 I ever spent in my life!” Forrest crows, and Grant agrees. “It was a great investment.”
  • “Ghosts may or may not exist, but in our world, they do not.”
  • “They made a lot of bad choices here,” Forrest says of his home’s new owners, but not of himself, ever.

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