Nothing is what it seems in Clickbait, where facts are established with a fervour only to be contradicted. (For one, we are told we are in Oakland, but the show is shot in Australia.) So, when Nick (Adrian Grenier) and Sophie (Betty Gabriel) are introduced as paragons of kind, careful love — an interracial couple who have created a family with two teenage boys — it is a promise to us that soon, this illusion, like the series itself, will unravel.
The show begins with three generations — a grandmother, her two kids, Nick and Pia (Zoe Kazan), her daughter-in-law Sophie, and her two grandkids — at a tense dinner table. What could go wrong? Pia is rabble-rousing, and within the first 5 minutes she is established as pill popping, one meltdown away from an alcoholic binge, shamelessly taking her roommates’ rice to dunk her phone which she dropped into the bar’s toilet bowl, heedlessly masturbating. So far gone yet forthright she is, we know that she must be the moral fulcrum of this show — the one character who doesn’t change, whose thoughts are always perched on her tongue. In an unreliable story, it is the unreliable narrator who often makes most sense. (Understandably, she is both endearing and annoying.)
When, the following day, a viral video of Nick holding a placard saying that he abuses women and that he will be killed if the video hits 5 million views washes up on the shores of the internet, the drama begins. Was he kidnapped? Is he an abuser? Will he die? If he is an abuser does he deserve to die? Okay, the last is maybe more my question, this show doesn’t hold onto any philosophical pretensions, Abbas-Mustan-ing the plot from one convenient, unimaginable, egregious twist to the next.
Enter Roshan (Phoenix Raei), the detective who has palpable chemistry with Pia — they had exchanged messages on a dating app the previous night, right before Pia dropped her phone into the toilet bowl. There is a ruthless journalist, mistresses, a brother of a mistress, and a bevvy of suspects that pepper the investigation. The titular clickbait itself is rendered as clickbait, unimportant to the story beyond the first episode.
This character density could have worked in its favour, and like Mare In Eastown could have created a lived-in comfort, a zig-zag plot, but the show makes a very curious narrative choice. Every episode is dedicated to one protagonist, either “The Journalist” or “The Mistress” or “The Brother”, and follows their story for the most part. This layers the story, but ultimately it sacrifices it. Because of the forced multiplicity of perspectives, there’s a lot of repetition in the storytelling, with the same scene playing out again and again. But the fatal flaw with this style is that it doesn’t know what to do with the characters after the episode. The characters often don’t show up again, or when they do, they completely unravel whatever their episode established. It felt like the show was going to do something interesting with Roshan’s character — a Persian, a hothead, hot — but it almost got bored of him mid-way, throwing him into the periphery of the story.
The Ending That Makes No Sense (Spoilers Ahead)
This becomes very apparent towards the latter half of the 8 hour-long episodes, at which point the show is just spitballing ideas. Sophie, the widow, is given one of the most mature, graceful arcs, and her relationship with her kids, her militant and loving sister-in-law, her supportive mother, her largely supportive mother-in-law shows what the web-series was capable of — nuance and care. When Sophie has to tell her kids Nick is no more, she tells them “Your father isn’t coming home.” When Pia takes one of her kids with her to the police station, she yells “You took a black kid to the police station?” There is so much care and worry in her voice, which rarely spills over to anger, but when it does, it is corrosive.
But the show doesn’t add up, logically. It is supposed to be a tense thriller around catfishing — pretending to be someone you’re not on the internet. The receptionist at Nick’s workplace had seen a notification from a dating app on his phone, and she uses this information to log in to his account and further catfish other women who believe they are chatting with Nick. (In a side-plot, one of the kids is given a mysterious online lover which has a sweet but unfinished ending that shows that not all anonymous lovers on the internet are “pedophiles in a basement”. Kindness exists in the cesspit.)
But the timelines don’t make sense, the ending makes no sense. We are told that six months ago Sophie told Nick that she cheated on him. But it is also later revealed that 2 years ago Nick had created a dating profile (using his own photos, synced to his phone, the notifications appearing on the home screen — if you need your audience to scream at you “That’s Not How To Be An Adulterer, Silly”, you know the logic is crass.) But this fact — that he indeed created a dating profile much before he knew about Sophie’s adultery — is not dealt with at all. Why did he create an account? In fact, the show ends in a tone that pretends like Nick was entirely blameless, entirely faithful. Let’s also not forget about the home screen notification for the two years the receptionist was impersonating him. Was he not receiving them?
The makers — Tony Ayres and Christian White — were so insistent in making the ending both something we can’t guess and couldn’t imagine, that the logical nuts and bolts fell off. So, when the show ended, instead of that sense of finality, there was doubt lingering, questions unanswered, and characters unaccounted for. The show hoped that by throwing us a curveball shock we would forget about it all. We didn’t.