Is most entertainment today getting click-bait-ified? The popular Netflix series Clickbait is exactly what its name says: it keeps you on the hook with the promise of something titillating, but never delivers deeper substance… and might leave you wondering why you clicked in the first place. Much of today’s entertainment is about drawing us in and capturing our attention, but not necessarily following through on a coherent work that adds meaning to our lives. So what we all lose when stories sacrifice too much for the clicks?
Pia: “Play it again!”
Vince: “Why? It’s obviously fake.”
Is most entertainment today getting click-bait-ified?
The popular Netflix series Clickbait is exactly what its name says: it keeps you on the hook with the promise of something titillating, but never delivers deeper substance… and might leave you wondering why you clicked in the first place.
After family man Nick Brewer (played by Entourage star Adrian Grenier) appears in a viral video holding signs that claim he’s abused women, the ensuing media spectacle initiates a hunt, both for Nick and for the truth about who Nick really was.
Ben: “We already know that Nick Brewer was a serial cheater, but was he also a murderer?”
Clickbait uses the same kinds of techniques as internet clickbait to keep us pressing “next episode”: focusing on sensational, violent spectacle; raising tantalizing questions that it delays answering, and ending episodes with cliffhangers that tease a big reveal, only to send us down a lot of false paths. Clickbait prioritizes being “entertaining” to such an extreme—and goes so far out of its way to not give the audience any way to predict the mystery’s eventual “answer”—that it undermines any coherent point or message we could take from it. Ultimately, it’s precisely the show’s unsatisfying-ness—its clickbait-TV form—that reveals something much wider about trends in today’s visual storytelling. In truth, much of today’s entertainment is about drawing us in and capturing our attention, but not necessarily following through on a coherent work that adds meaning to our lives. Here’s our take on what we all lose when stories sacrifice too much for the clicks.
Clickbait’s Clickbait-y Nature
The clickbait-y video that initiates the series’ plot warns that a man will die if it gets five million viewers. Thanks to the public’s inability to look away, it hits that target by the end of the first episode. Even Nick’s sister Pia (played by Zoe Kazan) is initially drawn in by the promise of something exciting to watch before she knows who the man is,—
Vince: “Should we watch it?”
Pia: “Um… Yeah.”
and later, struggles to stop rewatching it despite knowing she’s contributing to the view count. Thus the series opens with the portrait of a public that can’t help itself—we’re addicted to viral content despite knowing it’s not good for us and potentially directly harmful to people’s lives (in this case very literally).
The series itself strives to achieve a similar level of addictiveness, often through a tool that exposes just how much internet clickbait mirrors a long-standing staple of popular entertainment: the cliffhanger. This unresolved, tense plot point at the end of an episode of TV, movie or written serial is designed to keep the viewer or reader coming back for the next installment, needing to know, “How are they going to get out of this one?”
Joe Russo: “There’s an adage where you write yourself into a corner, then you try to figure out how to get out. And that usually creates really dramatic moments for the audience.”
Although TV clickbait has traditionally been about getting viewers to return week after week, or between seasons or sequels, Clickbait demonstrates how the “binge watch” can also leverage cliffhangers in its structure to invite compulsive engagement. The episodes frequently conclude by introducing artificially tense moments, like the discovery of the van from the videos at the end of episode one. Several episodes end by shifting suspicion onto a new character as the Brewer family and the police discover new information, creating a series of twists that redirect our attention. But since the final episode is literally titled “The Answer,” we know that none of the possible suspects from the early or middle parts of the season will wind up bearing fruit.
These storytelling tactics are an example of what’s known as “schmuck bait.” In TV, schmuck bait refers to a plot that teases a potential huge change to the status quo, like the suggestion that a primary character might be killed or leave the show for a faraway location.
As Michelle and Robert King, the creators and showrunners of The Good Wife and The Good Fight, put it in an interview, “schmuck bait is kind of like the end of any Perils of Pauline kind of serial where the car is heading towards the cliff and goes over the cliff so you think the main character has died, but then you see in the next episode the main character rolls out of the car. That’s schmuck bait because it entices the audience [into believing that] something massive has happened when in fact it wasn’t massive at all.” Similarly, the “twists” in each episode of Clickbait frequently resolve themselves as hot air—like when the bombshell that Nick had a mistress, Emma Beesly, later gives way to the truth that they never met
Emma: “I’m so sorry. I really believed it was Danny.”
Like with actual clickbait, this series uses these techniques very effectively to hook us and keep us hooked, only to finally offer a “solution” to its central mystery that’s deeply underwhelming. Though the series introduces several characters involved in Nick’s disappearance, like Sophie’s fling Curtis Hamilton, the catfishing victim Sarah Burton, and her brother Simon, the identity of the actual killer is impossible to guess. We eventually find out Nick was abducted by Simon and his friend Daryl, but Simon let Nick escape after realizing Nick wasn’t the one who drove his sister to suicide. But then—instead of going to a hospital, to his own home, or literally anywhere else—Nick ran to confront the “real” culprit: his friend and colleague Dawn, who’d been using her administrative access to Nick’s computer to pretend to be him and catfish women dating sites.
Nick: “You’re the only person who had access to all my photos. You’re the only person I told about my wife’s affair, my family, everything.”
At that point, Dawn’s husband Ed suddenly killed Nick to cover up what Dawn did. As critic Richard Roeper put it, the ending “throws a cold towel on our face.” Why? We don’t know Ed exists—he shows up for the first time in the finale—so there’s simply no way to have deduced that Ed was the “real” killer. Dawn—who’s framed as more at fault, since she’s the Catfisher who causes this whole mess—does briefly appear earlier in the series, but she’s intentionally kept on the sidelines, and we’re told almost nothing about her.
The mystery genre, generally speaking, relies on the promise of a “satisfying” solution for the reader or viewer. Yes, it should be too hard for most of us to anticipate, but a super clever person ought to at least in theory have a shot at solving the crime alongside the detective in the final drawing-room scene where they explain what “really” happened.
Another key thing that makes a mystery’s (or any story’s) resolution satisfying is that it has thematic resonance—it provides a meaningful answer to central questions raised. In its premise, Clickbait seems to promise an incisive commentary on our modern relationship to technology and media. It appears to be setting up some kind of morality tale about collective responsibility, how we’ve forgotten about the humanity behind the viral video, or (given the signs Nick’s holding) perhaps something about hurting women. But what does it actually end up saying about any of these things?
Clickbait on Dehumanizing Online-ness
The videos of Nick originally function as “clickbait” in large part because they appear to be a kind of feminist, #MeToo revenge story—the signs (and eventually dating profiles) suggest Nick was leading a secret life as a womanizer and possibly worse.
Audrey: “You exposed that man for who he really is. A scumbag. A liar. An abuser.”
But in the end, it turns out that Nick is a victim. The ultimate villain is, instead, a middle aged woman who’s driven to callously destroy all these lives because she’s bored. So, what message exactly is this trying to send? We do hear her express that she began catfishing because women of her age are invisible.
Dawn: “I wanted to know what it felt like to be someone.”
But after the set-up of a feminist revenge video, this answer inadvertently suggests that viral me-too accusations are likely to be lies created by an untrustworthy (older) woman. Even Nick’s friend Matt, who’s at one point hinted to be the culprit—and does abuse his position of power to have an affair with one of his volleyball player charges and release photos of her—is quickly discarded by the narrative because he isn’t the catfisher. In other words, the real instance of a woman being abused by a man is used as a fakeout. Dawn’s not-online husband Ed is framed as somewhat pitiable as his life is destroyed because he tries to protect his wife, while the show suggests that the entire series of events is really her fault and not his—even though his response to this whole situation is to murder Nick and even later attempt to kill Nick’s son Kai. Meanwhile, Nick is ultimately absolved of being a serial abuser of women, but Clickbait then drops the whole question of who Nick really was (which—earlier plots told us—wasn’t just a perfectly innocent guy.) Nick was on dating websites long before Sophie’s affair—making his reaction to that a little hypocritical.
Nick: “I wish I was the kind of man who could just move on, forgive and forget… I can’t.”
But if Nick’s not to blame, and the problem isn’t just “bored middle-aged women,” then who is supposed to be the actual culprit here—the internet?
Clickbait tries to be an examination of how technology is invading our lives today, and the disconnected nature of how we interact with each other online—in particular, it underlines the unknowability of the person on the other side of a screen.
Pia: “Someone was pretending to be Nick, using his image to catfish women.”
Through plots on catfishing, manipulative or invasive journalistic coverage, and posting revenge porn, Clickbait dramatizes how the industry of chasing attention online is dehumanizing. The “success” of the original videos ensures a constant media circus around Nick’s disappearance, which spirals out of control, turning public opinion against his family. It shows just how much their privacy is violated and how they’re emotionally abused by the public in this time of grief.
Later, the catfishing plot—where Dawn literally baits women into clicking and engaging—reminds us that online interactions have a real person on the other end, and what you say to them could have real consequences.
Part of the show’s point is also how the Internet obscures important information from us. Every character in Clickbait has only partial context for what happened, because their experience of events has been mediated by the internet. Ultimately Clickbait doesn’t really have any big answer about how technology is fundamentally changing human interaction—it boils down to a much simpler story about a series of misunderstandings, and the things people are driven to do by loneliness and easy access to the internet. Essentially, it raises lots of zeitgeisty-ish problems, but no original insights or solutions.
Clickbait on Journalism & Entertainment
Another key focus of Clickbait’s premise is how virality isn’t a moral force that we can hold accountable, and doesn’t necessarily lead to justice or helping people. There’s a good point here—just because something is widely shared doesn’t mean that it’s ethical, useful or even remotely true. But the show’s portrait of how our media and entertainment are getting more and more “clickbait-y” is highly sensationalized and centered on cartoonishly unscrupulous individuals.
Clickbait explores how the phenomenon of “clickbait” is replacing quality ethical journalism through the figure of Ben Park, who’s investigating Nick’s disappearance in an attempt to further his own career.
Ben: “Huge, right?”
Dakota: “Everyone is chasing a Nick Brewer story and you’ve landed a fucking whale.”
Ben’s callousness—including his willingness to break into people’s homes and emotionally violate a widow on live TV—make even his partner see him as a monster.
Cameron: “There are human beings on the other side of your stories. You know that, don’t you?”
Clickbait takes a fairly hostile tone towards journalism and the media in general. Reporters are shown thronging around the Brewer house, swarming the family in order to get a story. It’s the classic archetype of vulture journalists who don’t care about the people they hurt on the way to their story.
But today, the figure of the lone reporter chasing scoops with a cameraman feels outdated. Now almost everyone can fit this archetype; the current incarnation of this kind of character is far more likely to be found on social media or producing their own true crime podcast.
Meanwhile, much as the story condemns him, Ben’s investigation into the story offers real benefit to the case (he also mirrors Pia in his willingness to flout the law in order to find the truth).
Ben: “Sarah Burton was a third woman.”
Dakota: “How did you get these messages?”
Ben: “I can’t reveal my sources, Dakota, but I can tell you that they’re real.”
Most importantly, the reality is that clickbait in media isn’t driven by any individual journalists however cutthroat or unethical; it’s a systemic response to industry pressures and financial problems. Media companies and their slimming profit margins usually rely on selling ads tied to the number of people who click on a post. It’s a model that rewards eyeballs (however fleeting), but not the public service of delivering truth, education or substance.
Despite what this show might be implying, the problem of clickbait isn’t really a problem that began with the internet, either; it’s a new and discomforting evolution in the story of the media adapting to the nature of human attention. There’s a long history of journalism that tends toward the sensational, and even the fictional, in order to boost profits—see: the “yellow journalism” of the early 20th century, which inspired Citizen Kane.
Charles Foster Kane: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.”
In Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal’s character goes through the stages of realizing that no one cares whether he initiates or creates the stories he “reports” on, so long as the footage is compelling enough to get on the air. In the final season of The Wire, Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon stir up a sensational news narrative about a fake serial killer with a more noble goal—getting the Baltimore police department much-needed funding.
Their plan works in part because they give the story to ambitious, unethical Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton. But the plot ends up revealing deeper problems in the greater state of affairs: the upper management of the paper are primed to accept this kind of fake story (and even reject proof of Templeton’s mendacious reporting), because they, like most people in journalism, have gotten used to higher expectations with far lower budgets.
Thomas Klebanow: “Whatever cutbacks there are shouldn’t affect our ability to put out an excellent product. Simply have to do more with less.”
The last season of The Wire aired in 2008, and the “more for less” trend gutting journalism has only gotten worse, as much of local news dies off.
The same incentives that encourage the empty-calorie approach to clickbait in journalism produce similar results in entertainment more broadly. Internet clickbait drawing you in by promising something lurid, then quickly disappointing you, mirrors the way many movies and TV shows simply come and go. Most barely leave an impression in the broader culture—aside from briefly cracking Netflix’s top 10 or, perhaps, stirring up a media controversy.
A series of clickbait-esque motivations today encourage TV and film to be sensational and weird, rather than good. It’s more important to shock, surprise and grab attention (and be meme-able) than to deliver any deep point or quality story. Sometimes, the attention grabbed by negative attributes—like being offensive enough to work people up into a frenzy or being “so bad it’s good”—is rewarded through press and hate-watching. And for the business behind the movie or TV show, any conversation and views are mostly upside—it’s not important why someone bought a ticket or subscribed to the streaming service, as long as they paid.
It’s also a situation where it’s very hard to control media narratives in the way entertainers once could. In Clickbait, Pia and Nick’s family inadvertently contribute to the video’s virality, demonstrating the Streisand Effect. (It’s a term for when an attempt to hide information or media makes it more visible—named after Barbara Streisand’s unintentionally drawing attention to a picture of her house by trying to block it becoming public). The rapidly accelerated nature of today’s news cycle on social media means there can be multiple instances of the Streisand Effect in a given week.
Given the impossibility of hiding anything unpleasant—combined with how news leaves it behind so fast—you’re almost better off leaning into unusual or obnoxious behavior and just capitalizing on the public appetite for salacious or strange details.
Clickbait is hated because it makes a big promise and then makes the reader regret clicking. And too much of today’s entertainment wrangles people by any means necessary into binge-viewing, which like junk food is quickly forgotten, possibly regretted. It also makes us wonder where all of these series end up several years from now—will they still be watched even a short time into the future, or are these clickbait entertainment options purely disposable? Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of options for an individual viewer to turn this tide—but we can back and support intelligent, thoughtful entertainment, and not participate in the controversy and hype around the kinds of things that merely aspire to be Clickbait.
So, does Clickbait ultimately have anything useful to say beyond modeling its namesake? It would be easy to read the series as arguing that the internet has made it harder to form real connections and relationships, and that we should all be more suspicious and cautious in what we do online—often Clickbait does seem to be suggesting that things would be easier without technology.
(After all, two non-tech-savvy men have to die because a woman got carried away on her computer!) But the plot frequently complicates and contradicts its anti-technology thesis. While Ethan briefly suspects his internet girlfriend Alison of being a catfish, she turns out to be… exactly who she says she is. Their romance is a bright spot in the series, an exception that proves technology can be a means to finding a real connection and mutual support. Meanwhile, the events leading to Nick’s death are enabled by key moments of analogue interactions: Nick’s confiding in Dawn about his problems,
Nick: “I trusted you, you were my friend. Now everybody thinks I’m a monster.”
his not being educated in how technological platforms work, and even his naively stopping to help people he thinks are in trouble while not having charged his phone.
Before all of this starts, most of these people seem, privately, pretty unhappy in their offline lives. So despite what it may be trying to say, Clickbait ultimately suggests that being vulnerable with another person always comes with the possibility of pain and hurt, no matter the platform. And even if the ubiquity of technology may be eroding our humanity, the cat’s out of the bag. The solution is clearly not, like Nick, to just leave yourself vulnerable by ignoring the role of technology in your and everyone else’s life. We’ve got to find a way to make the best and most responsible uses of these tools.
Sophie: “I don’t want them to see it. It’s much worse than—”
Ethan: “How are you gonna stop us, mom?”
Kai: “Yeah, I’ll just go upstairs and watch it on my phone.”