The trouble with making the Internet the villain of your TV show
By the time we get to Episode 8 of Netflix’s new thriller, Clickbait, aptly called “The Answer,” viewers certainly feel they like they’ve been forced to defend former Philadelphia 76ers star, Allen Iverson, racing down the court, darting east-to-west, north and south in his classic frenetic manner. This strange series, meant to shed a dark light on our connected world, headfakes viewers in so many directions that by the time we get into the closing minutes of the series and we learn whodunnit, we have a feeling of both exhaustion and wonderment about what the hell just happened.
Ostensibly, Clickbait is about trying to find out what really happened to family man Nick Brewer (played by Adrian Grenier) who appears in a bloody, foreboding YouTube-like video with cue cards that have him admitting to abusing women, and killing one of them. The staged video also tells viewers that Brewer will die if his creepy video reaches five million views (he does; it does).
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
But before we can figure out what really happened to Brewer, we need to figure out who the guy actually was before the video appeared. Was he the nice guy physical therapist at a local Oakland, California, university married to a local educator, or a demented, sadistic freak who spent his limited free time manipulating and leading multiple women he met on several online dating websites (where he had profiles with different names) to believe he will soon be with them after leaving his wife and unhappy marriage? That most of the women he leads on seem to be desperate and lonely (one of whom relies on “meds” to maintain happiness) lends extra emotional darkness to Brewer’s apparent online machinations.
We briefly feel for Brewer and somewhat understand his need for online-enabled revenge sex because we learn his wife has had an affair with a fellow teacher at her school. But what seemed to be a fling for Brewer with one woman in Los Angeles becomes many women over the course of the series, including one who tragically takes her own life. Brewer apparently had so many flings with women he met online that even his beloved sister and kids begin to wonder what kind of two-faced monster he actually was, to say nothing of the most of the East Bay of San Francisco, which has turned on Brewer after several gossipy updates on social media and Extra-like TV interviews spread virally throughout the region. Or was he actually a monster?
As the whodunnit plot unfolds, attention begins to move away from what a godforsaken jerk Brewer is to the realization that he, too, may have been a victim in life…and death. Through internet sleuthing, and family-led investigations after police have moved on from the case, the story gets more complicated, as it usually does. It seems Brewer never cheated on his wife, never actually met the women he met online, and that someone created the entire loutish story by copying Brewer’s likeness in a catfish scheme to entrap lonely women, all of whom apparently hail from major California cities.
But who would concoct such a scheme and why? Was it his manipulative colleague on the volleyball team looking to frame him? The mysterious person communicating on the gamer messenger app with one of Brewer’s sons? Or was it the master plan of the man with whom Brewer’s wife had an affair?
In circling around these questions and leading viewers on a range of different witch hunts, the directors of the show are obviously trying to make a point about our mediated world, the dangers of social media, the moral bankruptcy of the news business, and how the lines between reality and virtual reality have blended so much that no can be sure of truth any more, and that the person you are communicating with on Ashley Madison really may not be who you think they are. Evil lurks in technology everywhere and no can escape the dangers of the Internet, young or old. Information not only wants to be free, it wants to kill you, too.
The fact they’ve set Clickbait in Oakland appears to add additional menace to the dark side of the web. Heck, if people can manipulatively catfish the digitally-savvy, multicultural denizens of the The Town–just miles from the Big Tech headquarters of Twitter, Google, Facebook and Apple–with fake user profiles, sketchy terms and conditions waivers that allow your social network profile information to be sold to other start ups, and misguided, drug-using content moderators can track you down IRL, what the hell does that mean for folks who can’t even afford to live in Sacramento (which makes a regionally credible appearance in the show)?
To be sure, wrestling with the dangers of technology and the scary parts of the Internet are certainly worth exploring. But there’s a surface-level, Reagan-era this is your brain on Internet/Afterschool Special preachy vibe to much of Clickbait that makes it hard to focus on the real lessons at hand. Some of the material is so over the top and discordant, and the plot twists so ridiculous, that one wonders if anyone will take seriously the anti-technology messages it conveys.
Trying to figure out how to integrate the Internet into television programs almost as a character itself can definitely be challenge, and Clickbait certainly isn’t the first series to clumsily miss the mark on it. Nor will it be the last, as we can definitely expect more ham-fisted attempts like this as our Big Tech overlords continue to act as cartoon bad guys at a time we rely on the Internet for everything in our lives. But empowering citizens of all ages to truly understand our tech-dominated reality better is going to require Netflix thrillers with lessons a bit more complicated than: don’t share your password with anyone, particularly the nice old lady who answers the phones at the office.