Since its premiere on August 30, Showtime’s Love Fraud has been hailed as the next Tiger King: a highly entertaining docuseries, whose true-crime story is still unfolding as the cameras roll. And the four-part series, from Jesus Camp filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is certainly a compulsory watch, full of twists, turns, amateur sleuthing, and even a car chase. The target of Love Fraud’s investigation is also man whose reputation precedes him; early on, his disembodied voice insists he has nothing sinister to confess as proof of his chicanery is plastered onscreen. Ewing and Grady’s docuseries isn’t nearly as populated with amoral characters, but Love Fraud also falls short in the same manner that Tiger King did—the docuseries doesn’t add up to more than a litany of dastardly deeds.
Love Fraud, which aired its last installment on Sunday, follows the trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts left by Rick Scott Smith, a middle-aged lothario who played at being a pilot, chef, and water skier. Smith, who has more than 40 aliases, is known to most of these women as Rick, Scott, or Mickey. A few of them, including single mom Tracey, met Smith online via dating apps, where Smith carefully cultivated his image. Ewing and Grady smartly build suspense, staggering testimonials from his ex-lovers and wives, and alternating between audio recordings and photographs of Smith. Like the women he hustled, viewers are presented with only part of the picture, which spurs them on to the next episode—and victim.
Tellingly, though, the series never actually uses that term. The women’s relationships with Smith vary; he married several of them, including Jean, who also became his business partner. He moved in with some; others, he bought engagement rings. They’re Smith’s ex-wives, ex-lovers, ex-girlfriends—and now, his hunters. One of them started a still-operational website devoted to tracking Smith’s activities and warning others away from him. Despite the pain inflected, the money and dignity lost, the production never refers to interview subjects like Tracy, Sabrina, Ellen, and Sandi as Scott’s victims. Even the word “survivors” is more likely to come up in reviews than the docuseries itself. In interviews, they’re mostly referred to as “the women”—the women who were romanced, defrauded, robbed, and who eventually found solace in each other. At first, the term lends the docuseries a sisterly feel. Once Kansas City bounty hunter and series breakout Carla Campbell enters the picture, though, it gives things a Kill Bill vibe.
Vengeance quickly becomes the prevailing narrative. In an interview with The Oprah Magazine, Ewing says, “It was important to us that the audience knew what [Smith] had done to the women. But most of the series is absorbed with, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ What will law enforcement do to help us? Nothing? OK, so what can we legally do as citizens that’s within the law to bring him in?” To answer the latter question, Ewing and Grady hired private investigators in Wichita, Kansas; Nebraska; and Knoxville, Tennessee to track down Smith. Along with some of the women, they stake out Smith outside of restaurants, apartment complexes, and highway motels. It all leads to a confrontation with the philanderer himself.
That framing potentially offers catharsis to the women and viewers; it also is key to what makes the show immensely watchable at first. Love Fraud is stylish true crime: When Sabrina, who was robbed of tens of thousands of dollars, says, “The best way to get over a guy is revenge,” you half-expect to hear a guitar riff, because you know the chase is on. Blues guitar and vocals are featured in the whimsical title sequence, which is a collaboration between collage artist Martin O’Neill and animator Andrew Griffin. The scope of the series continues to grow, as more interview subjects share their stories and the action moves from Missouri to Kansas and, finally, Tennessee. There are even other potential bad players: In Wichita, the filmmakers find Karla, who left her husband, Jim, after a 39-year marriage to start a seafood restaurant with Smith. This new life was funded by Jim’s pension—without his permission. And in Knoxville, a woman named Lee, who insists there are “two sides to every story,” decries the women’s collected tales as a “witch hunt.”
What we’re actually watching is a manhunt in real time—which, again, makes for compelling television, but ultimately has very little to say beyond “Book ’em, Danno.” Love Fraud even struggles to establish a sense of time; there are no title cards denoting the year this or that marriage occurred. One subject, Michele, who is introduced in the third episode, shares pictures from her wedding day that show a much younger-looking Smith. It’s heartbreaking to listen to Michele recount how Smith physically assaulted her on their wedding night, or how he spied on her throughout their relationship, and even threatened to harm her children from a previous marriage. But then the story moves on to the next survivor/woman without placing Michele’s experiences in the larger framework. (At the very least, it would help to know just how long Smith has been at this, since he appears nearly 15 years younger in the wedding photo shown.)
Love Fraud gives all of the women a chance to sit front and center, hearing them out as they allude to the difficulty of dating in your 40s, let alone as a single parent, and of just wanting to be in a loving relationship. Several of the women form a support group that meets at the bounty hunter’s office, where the wisecracking but soulful Carla keeps their spirits up—though not before she asks, “I just don’t get it. How do you fall for this?” That’s the only time that question is posed throughout the series, which is both honorable and frustrating. Ewing and Grady’s intent may be to avoid even the possibility of shaming the women for falling prey to an accomplished con man, but it also has the result of making Smith the focus of the docuseries. The women who do get to speak about their pre-Rick/Mickey pasts are Karla and Lee, whose motives are shaded by the production early on; there’s even a coda to Karla’s story, as she reunites with her husband, Jim, (again, after absconding with their savings), who says, “You’re supposed to be able to forgive” your loved ones’ wrongdoings. But it’s Smith’s backstory that gets explored, through talking heads with family members and what sounds like audio from his own interviews (which, confusingly enough, is mixed with messages Smith left the women). A customized animated sequence even precedes every dive into Smith’s psyche. It’s his voice we hear first, waxing philosophically about his abandonment issues; his face is the last one we see.
It’s entirely possible the women were reluctant to reveal any more than they already have, and who could fault them? Ewing and Grady may have also been trying to keep the docuseries to four hours, though, if that was the case, they could have easily ditched the animation, or paired one less recording of Smith with shots of photo booths on rain-spattered streets to create atmosphere. What seems more likely—at least, based on interviews with the filmmakers—is that they didn’t want to appear to render judgment on the already defrauded and heartbroken. Which again, is an admirable goal, but also inadvertently allows Smith to dominate the narrative, rarely ever engaging with the healing process for the women. In its efforts to avoid victim-blaming, the series loses sight of the survivors.