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If nothing else, give credit to Clickbait for a perfectly apt title. Like the genre of internet article it’s named after, the Netflix miniseries tries to lure in audiences with the promise of juicy reveals and hot-button controversy — only to deliver, in the end, a shallow story about not much at all.
Creators Tony Ayres and Christian White do begin with an interesting premise. Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier), a seemingly kind and decent family man, disappears one morning on his way to work. Hours later, a mysterious video clip surfaces in which Nick admits, apparently under duress, to abusing women — and then indicates that he himself will be killed once the video reaches 5 million views.
Airdate: Wednesday, Aug. 25
Cast: Adrian Grenier, Zoe Kazan, Betty Gabriel, Phoenix Raei, Jessica Collins, Abraham Lim, Daniel Henshall, Camaron Engels, Jaylin Fletcher, Ian Meadows, Becca Lish, Motell Foster
Creators: Tony Ayres, Christian White
Could Nick really be guilty of the crimes he’s confessed to? If he is, does the punishment fit the crime? If he’s not, who’s framing him, and why? Can Nick’s family stop the video from reaching 5 million views? What does it say about the internet’s dark id that some people seem downright eager to see Nick torn apart? How complicit are all of us in a situation like this, one that requires the indifference or active participation of millions of total strangers?
Clickbait tries to address those questions, and many more that arise along the way, over eight episodes of 45-ish minutes, each of which focuses on a different individual connected to the case: Nick’s hot-headed sister, Pia (Zoe Kazan); his devoted wife, Sophie (Betty Gabriel); Roshan (Phoenix Raei), the ambitious detective assigned to the case; Ben (Abraham Lim), the ruthless journalist pursuing the story, and so on. The structure theoretically allows for a more comprehensive view of not only the mystery and the people involved in it, but of the digital culture it’s steeped in.
But the show’s problems start with the fact that, well, it’s doing this over eight 45-ish-minute episodes. The ultimate reveal of what’s really going on isn’t actually all that complicated or all that shocking; Clickbait has simply decided to take six hours to solve a mystery that a feature film (or Black Mirror episode) could wrap up in a fraction of the time. After a couple of episodes of incremental reveals and obvious red herrings, the temptation to just skip the rest and search for spoilers on Twitter becomes overpowering.
Meanwhile, Clickbait offers precious little of the rich characterization or world-building that justifies the long hours spent on other TV mysteries, like Big Little Lies or Mare of Easttown. Everyone in Clickbait has secrets, but that’s not the same as having personality or interiority. Few of the characters ever manage to transcend the archetypes they begin as, and some become grating in their repetition. (Kazan throws herself into Pia’s ragged desperation, but I too grew sick of “the whole goddamn Pia show,” as another character puts it.) The rare exception is Sophie, which is more a feat of acting than writing. Though the character’s lines are as generic as anyone else’s, Gabriel allows us into the intense emotions roiling beneath her fragile calm as she struggles to absorb every devastating new twist in her husband’s ordeal.
Still, this blandness could perhaps be excused if Clickbait had at least something insightful to say on the topic of the internet, which is ostensibly its core thematic concern. But here, too, it stumbles. The series relies on references to #MeToo, doxing and catfishing to add a sheen of relevance, but its exploration of those topics goes about as deep as an Urban Dictionary entry. The choice to avoid real companies (the characters use “subports” instead of subreddits, for example) isn’t an insurmountable challenge to its credibility in and of itself — but combined with Clickbait‘s arm’s-length approach to the issues it purports to investigate, it only adds to the sense that the series has no idea what it’s talking about.
It’s not that all Clickbait‘s arguments are invalid. It is true that laws governing the internet can be tough to enforce across borders; that the Terms & Conditions we mindlessly click on can open us up to privacy nightmares; that the eager new friends we meet online may not be who they claim to be; that in spite of those pitfalls, the internet can be a useful tool for investigation or connection. But these points aren’t new. They’ve been made by countless other series and films — everything from Black Mirror to The Circle — on levels far more complicated and nuanced (and entertaining) than seem within Clickbait‘s capacity to imagine.
What we’re left with, then, is a whole lot of nothing. Clickbait isn’t brainy enough to add to the already ongoing conversations around the dangers of the internet, and yet it’s not brazen enough to lean into full-on pearl-clutching. It’s not so incompetent as to be dismissed as total trash, but nor is it interesting enough to embrace as a hidden gem. It’s just kind of there, waiting for someone to find its title provocative enough to give it a click. You’d do best to heed the warning built into that same title, and keep on scrolling.
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