Ghosted: Love Gone Missing (hereafter Ghosted) is the latest reality show on MTV that I feel somehow compelled to watch despite knowing better. As with the other ones earlier mentioned — Are You the One? and Catfish — Ghosted’s concept is rooted in the contemporary mores of romance and personal relationships, and whose appeal is not a little driven by voyeurism. Its premise is almost a direct, but notably distinct, copy of Catfish: two hosts helping lovelorn young people find significant others, platonic as well as romantic, who cut off contact with them suddenly and without explanation. The show had garnered controversy even before it premiered for its invasive nature, with its “investigations” consisting largely of social media stalking and coercion. But its watchability goes almost without saying. One review described the show as “hilariously awkward” and “a trainwreck we can’t look away from,” concluding ultimately that “We might be going to hell for liking it so much.”
With Ghosted, MTV may have solidified the latest phase of its unending evolution: purveyor of emotional pornography. Emotional pornography is the outcome of our therapeutic cultural climate colliding with the unprecedented availability of private information. Social media has long ago supplanted its connective function with a clinical one. Users have an “outlet” to convey “feelings” to a vague and vast receptor, which is made directly privy to vulnerabilities familiar on a human level but distinct and satisfying to observe on a personal level. MTV had achieved an impressive balance of entertaining vulnerability with Are You the One? and Catfish (less so with the more kindhearted Catfish spinoff Suspect); Ghosted, on the other hand, takes the model to new levels of experience at turns cleverer and more sinister.
The strength of shows like Are You the One? and Catfish is found in the distance each establishes between viewer and viewed. Viewers of Are You the One? are likely accustomed to the frustration and hurt of trying to find a compatible partner, or to force a compatibility that is not there, but never have they done it in such claustrophobic isolation and with such conventionally attractive people. The show is just unreal enough that we might as well be watching very hot rhesus monkeys hump a wire mate. Catfish establishes the opposite sort of distance, in which exceptionally lonely and awkward people in uncool places like Florida and Syracuse are, from our vantage point anyway, easily deluded by outsized expectations and thirst. No such distance exists on Ghosted, which depicts too common a phenomenon.
“Ghosting” may not be of the millennial generation’s invention, but instantaneous social interaction stored on glass rectangles in our pockets has made the practice our albatross. The possible value of ghosting is debatable in theory, but in practice it is a casual breach of decorum that arbitrarily denies someone the human desire, however justified or unjustified, for rationalization, validation, and closure. An encounter that ends on an ellipsis — figurative or digital — is not the worst experience in modern social life, but it is the most profuse, and a show centered on ghosting could not prevent viewers from taking a side. In fact, this show practically encourages it.
Ghosted, as stated earlier, works very much like Catfish. An ordinary young person — deemed the “haunted” — tells his or her tale of woe to the two hosts — someone I dated vanished after x-number of months, my best friend cut me out of their life without a word, etc. The hosts formulate their best theories and proceed to test them out by scrawling through the haunted’s social circle online (usually Instagram), often while the haunted is blocked from seeing the “ghost’s” content. They slide into DMs, make cold calls, get testimony, including from the ghost, who they, I’m going to say, strongly encourage to meet them and the haunted at an empty studio to be confronted about his or her behavior. Then ghost and haunted send each other a text to declare if they want to make up or formally split. This latter aspect of the show has been criticized for its campy Maury Povich-style framing, but it is only the logical outcome of the badness that proceeds it.
Cyberstalking is an ambiguous phenomenon of the digital era. Just going by the term, it is deviant and yet so easy and passive an activity to fall into at the same time. Sometimes there is seeming necessity to it. As a writer, I have to expect people to do this on me to a certain extent. Other times we just do it because we’re bored, looking through an old friend’s or an enemy’s or a total stranger’s posts simply because they’re there. Catfish exploits this impulse but gets away with it under the sort of credible pretense of unraveling a deception, the motives of which are not immediately clear. Ghosted is on less firm ground as its hosts interject themselves into the personal business of others that is both more widely relatable and individually dicier. It is like trying to tame the writhing insects under the grass in Blue Velvet, except here they represent base pettiness, insecurity, convoluted drama, bitterness, and trauma.
To be sure, the few episodes so far aired have had mixed outcomes. Some who have ghosted did so in order to better assess their sexuality, others did so because of infidelity or suspicion of the infidelity of others. It is almost bizarre how frequently the show can wring specific causes out of them. One ghost is revealed to be a serial ghoster with a pattern of behavior so obvious that the confrontation with this comically petulant man was more for audience amusement than the haunted’s catharsis.
But there are also episodes that show how Ghosted can make for uncomfortable viewing. Such as when an aspiring standup comedian sought help in finding his girlfriend of six months who vanished and blocked him on all platforms. The search ends with a cringing reveal of family trauma, outré sexual proclivities, and clearly crossed boundaries. During the confrontation, the woman provides video evidence of the man’s use of their relationship and her personal issues in his routines, without her consent, which caused her to leave him. Though justified in thinking that this could have been better addressed to him directly, the man is still utterly incredulous of the severity of his actions and does not apologize.
Throughout the experience, one wonders how this is all managed. Neither of the hosts are trained in care or therapy. Rachel Lindsay is a former Bachelorette; Travis Mills is a musician I’ve never heard of. But they have been ghosted before, acting on the dictum that experience is the best teacher while taking it a step further to claim that it also confers a kind of authority. In their capacity as hosts they are the judge, jury, and defense of America’s heartbroken. In the seemingly popular distaste for expertise as of late, this would be taking it to an extreme. Observe by comparison the thoughtful, restrained, if somewhat tedious, Couples Therapy on Showtime. This is maybe one show that could benefit from a life coach or an interventionist or a youth pastor, anyone with some kind of certification if it doesn’t already.
Watching Ghosted has brought me closer to understanding the impulse to demand that something be #cancelled and that those enabling the cancelled object #dobetter. But I’d be surprised if that impulse was ever exerted against this show. People are too acquainted with ghosting, too aware that digitized social life is filled with loopholes, and that dating in the digital era has taken on traits of the gig economy. No one appreciates being dropped without explanation. Doing so reduces personal interactions to a series of power moves and counter-power moves, it authorizes bad behavior, it makes those dropped feel, at best, disposable, and it may prove a gateway to still more cruelty. In the face of it one can only assume a stoical cast of mind that just accepts it, hoping for the best next go-round with only the vaguest understanding of how to avoid it, which often means becoming a ghost in turn. In Ghosted there is a charming if fantastical alternative where closure is dealt out like justice through self-care administered with doses of vigilantism.