Clickbait Turns Family Secrets into a Gripping Cybercrime
The media frenzy around a missing man reveals strained relationships, shocking twists, and makes for incredibly bingeable TV.
Pia (Zoe Kazan) is at work when a patient plays her a viral video of a “random white dude” holding up signs that say “I abuse women” and “At 5 million views I die”. People aren’t sure if it’s a prank or promotion for a new horror movie, but the random man is her brother, Nick (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier), and her world turns upside down from that point on. Is it a confession, or a death threat? What do the signs mean, and why can no one find Nick?
Clickbait is one of the most gripping Netflix shows of the year, offering twists and turns that make it impossible not to watch the next episode. Each of the eight episodes is told from a different character’s point of view –titled The Sister, The Detective, The Son, etc– often taking such unexpected turns that viewers may not even want to look at the names of the episodes until they’re revealed in the respective opening scenes. Each perspective takes the show, and our theories, in an entirely new direction.
Pia checking the number of views on Nick’s video is where the pacing of the show gets really exciting, because so much is happening so rapidly that you can’t predict where the show is going to take the story. This series is reminiscent of the 2018 John Cho thriller Searching, in the way, its most significant plot progression comes through unpacking online activity, told with texts and online chats displayed on screen. Also similarly to Searching, Clickbait serves as a warning of the risks of catfishing, posting personal pictures online, and the comparison of a virtual presence against one’s daily life.
While the accusations against Nick may lead you to believe that Clickbait is an exploration of the post Me Too era, and what happens to a man’s family when he’s accused of abuse and violence against women —or perhaps what happens while they’re reeling from the effects of an investigation into his life when he isn’t there to defend himself— the topic of sexual harassment and misogyny in Clickbait is secondary to the many family secrets that are unravelled in the investigation.
Nick’s family is forced to reconsider everything they know and love about him. Strained relationships and infidelity play a huge role in the unravelling of this bizarre cybercrime. Every member of this cast delivers captivating performances as characters equally secretive and intriguing, keeping audiences and the police guessing right to the very end. Engaging plot twists and a diverse cast of potential villains make the show at turns eerie and frightening, sparkling with reveals as seductive as good gossip.
The show exposes the role of the media –both social media and television coverage– in accelerating the timeline of Nick’s fate. Initially, in the way reporting on its popularity leads to rapid increase of views on the video; Subsequently, Nick’s reputational downfall as wild accusations, is widely believed as truth.
Clickbait incorporates not only the natural inclination of the public to become amateur investigators, but the various sophisticated technology they have access to do so. The patient who first played the video for Pia creates a geocaching app that helps people search the area for Nick and mark off on the map as they go; A gossip journalist buys data from a dating site in the hopes of finding an old profile of Nick’s to report on his infidelity.
There’s also an undercurrent of race explored in the show —only in subtle ways, and hardly ever brought to the forefront directly, which is fascinating and refreshing to watch. The diverse cast and focus on revealing sordid secrets allows for the questions of racism and discrimination to lie underneath it all and leave the audience speculating if these factors provide insight into the mystery at all.
Nick’s wife, Sophie (Betty Gabriel), is Black, and so are his sons; but his sister and mother are white. This, and the outworking of their respective grief, affects the way they deal with the police. We witness Pia’s brash determination, Nick’s sons’ spiralling grief and disorientation, and Sophie’s stoicism in the face of devastating turmoil.
The detective liaison, Roshan Amiri (Phoenix Raei), who is also Pia’s love interest, is Muslim. We meet his family, go with him to mosque, and there’s a scene where he tells Pia that he doesn’t drink. When he confronts his white boss about the way he’s being treated, he gives an enraged speech which resonates with the audience as calling out racism, right up until his boss replies to those comments. The response to Roshan’s outburst is unexpected and the perfect come-down-to-reality moment for both Roshan and the audience. But it’s not always that overt or direct:
Ben Park (Abraham Lim), is an Asian reporter who gets passed up for the opportunities his white colleague enjoys, and we gain insight into the lengths he goes to try and make his mark. The episode spent with Ben includes breaking and entering, arguing with his boyfriend, and incredibly close calls after stealing valuable evidence that ultimately helps solve the case. Flashbacks to the past in this episode also allow for contemplation on the aftershocks of trauma that comes with a loved one dying by suicide.
More than the ‘Me Too’ angle, the show tells a strong tale of the incompetence and limitations of police investigations. The legal parameters and procedures in place mean that the police are always playing second fiddle to Pia’s own investigations, and to the public who have taken this wild phenomenon into their own hands.
The show is relentless in presenting us with new theories and creating suspicion in every direction, and it excels at bringing us along for the emotional ride. Then, the thrilling final episode presents an entirely different and completely surprising narrative! Tension builds up fast-paced, high-stakes, heart-stopping hold-your-breath action as it races towards the end.
Clickbait was the most-viewed streaming series in the US when it released in September, hitting the number 1 spot on Netflix in 20 countries. It’s absolutely worth the watch.