Outside the box
MTV has always been ahead of the pack when it comes to dreaming up original reality shows, and 'Catfish' is one of its most bizarre and cringe-making documentary series yet.
The show, which began in the US late last year and was shown on MTV UK, examines the seamier side of internet dating, and has been heavily criticised for being manipulative, unseemly and possibly fraudulent.
A second season began in America last week and will appear here later this year – and, by the sound of it, the show's producers have really upped the ante.
A 'catfish' is a person who creates fake profiles online and pretends to be someone they are not. Apparently, there are 83 million fake Facebook profiles knocking around online, and 'Catfish' seeks out poor, gullible souls who fall in love with such technological illusions.
In the first series, for instance, jovial presenters Nev Schulman and Max Joseph met Jarrod, a divorced father from Georgia who fell for an online spectre going by the name of Abby, who was supposedly a svelte blonde beauty but turned out to be an overweight woman called Melissa who'd created the glamorous fake profile to boost her low self-esteem.
Schulman and Joseph encountered women posing as men, a teenage boy pretending to be a woman, a transgender woman posing as a man, a male model who turned out to be a bus driver and a girl who posed as a former Miss Teen America to snare an old high-school crush.
'Catfish' laid bare the truth by bringing together victims and their fake online loves for encounters that sometimes turned ugly.
It is, in a sense, the perfect dating show for our digital age, but some of the meetings between online loves do feel a little staged. Others, in fairness, are all too believably raw, and the first episode of series two felt prurient in the extreme.
A young African-American woman called Cassie was coping with the aftermath of her father's violent murder when she found solace in the virtual arms of a Facebook friend called Steve. Things went so well that poor Cassie even asked Steve to marry her, but after Schulman tracks this character down, Cassie has her heart broken for our entertainment and edification. Which is probably not very nice, but 'Catfish' is one of those shows you'll be compelled to keep watching, even if you don't feel very good about yourself afterwards.
* You wouldn't find that sort of filth on the Disney Channel, which has always been unimpeachably wholesome. In the mid-2000s they scored a huge hit with 'High School Musical', a TV movie that turned into a trilogy and turned Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron into stars. Now, Disney is trying to repeat the trick by reviving a long-dead genre.
'Teen Beach Movie' will hark back to the surfing movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, combining 'High School Musical'-style singing and dancing with a plot seemingly inspired by 'Back to the Future'.
A couple of modern teenagers are transported to 1962 and straight into the middle of a surfing film called 'Wet Side Story', which they find it very hard to escape from. Sounds cheesy, I grant you, but then so did the plot of 'High School Musical', and that turned out to be clever, funny and very well orchestrated and choreographed.
'Teen Beach Movie' will debut on the Disney Channel this month.
* If you enjoy watching lucrative TV careers implode before your very eyes, you might want to check out the salutary tale of Paula Deen. Until very recently, Ms Deen was one of the most popular chefs on American television, dispensing hearty and artery- clogging southern recipes in a broad and pleasing Georgia drawl that won her millions of adoring fans.
She's written 14 cookbooks, opened a chain of restaurants and won lucrative endorsements from various corporate sponsors. But last month her empire started to crumble when a former employee at one of her restaurants implied that Paula is an old-style southern racist who made derogatory remarks about African-Americans and even used the 'n' word.
Deen then made things worse for herself, first by admitting that she had indeed employed the 'n' word in the past, and second by disclosing that she had once planned a "plantation-style" wedding for her brother involving black servants and an all-white guest-list before wiser heads persuaded her to abandon this crazy scheme.
Add to this the news that Paula was discovered to have hidden the fact that she now suffers from Type 2 diabetes while continuing to flog recipes clogged with salt, sugar and fat, and you have a TV chef in all sorts of trouble.
Last month Walmart, Home Depot, JC Penney, Sears and Kmart all either suspended or terminated endorsement deals with Deen, and the Food Network channel announced that they will not be renewing her contract.
Deen's cooking shows can still be seen on the Food Network over here, though not for long, I suspect, and her recent, doomed attempt to save herself on NBC's 'Today' show can be viewed online.
* While I found the third series of 'Downton Abbey' disappointingly soapy and absurdly camp, I seem to be alone in this assessment. It was the highest-rated show in Britain in 2012, with average viewing figures of 11.9 million, and also did huge numbers in the US. All of which means that even more money will be pumped into the creation of series four, which is currently filming.
It's been confirmed that Oscar-nominated film actor Paul Giamatti will join the cast as Harold Levinson, the dissolute and debauched brother of Countess Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern).
After the unfortunate demise of Matthew Crawley, Welsh actor Tom Cullen will play Lady Mary's new love interest, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will turn up as a singing house guest, and 'Death in Paradise' star Gary Carr will play Downton's first black character, a passing jazz musician. The new series starts on UTV in the autumn.