Clickbait, an eight-part Netflix thriller series, is at least well-named. The Australian-American co-production entices you with a mystery whodunnit orchestrated by unseen villains of an anonymous, viral internet, but diverts to a feather-thin saga of red herrings and duality that is more irksome than interesting, with a roving perspective more dabbling than deep. Its ominously scored trailer suggests suspense, marking it as another entry in, as Slate put it recently, the clickbaitification of Netflix – cheaply produced, fast-churned, deceptively bland series designed to keep you watching.
Created by the Australian showrunner Tony Ayres and fellow Aussie Christian White, Clickbait begins with a disappearance: that of Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier) a physical therapist and consummate family man in Oakland, California, though the show is clearly filmed elsewhere (Melbourne, Australia). The day after a fight with his sister, Pia (Zoe Kazan), a suspicious video is posted online in which a bruised and bloodied Nick holds a sign that reads “I abuse women,” and “At 5 million views, I die.”
That comes as a shock to Pia and Nick’s wife, teacher Sophie (Betty Gabriel), who vigorously defend his reputation – ultimately, Clickbait’s main preoccupation – as the incompetent police investigation unfolds. Each episode assumes a different main perspective – first Pia, then Detective Rohan Amiri (Phoenix Raei), Sophie, Nick’s online mistress Emma (Jessica Collins), scruple-less reporter Ben Park (Abraham Lin), the brother of a woman found through the investigation (Daniel Henshall), and the Brewers’ eldest son, high-schooler Ethan (Camaron Engels).
Yet Clickbait feels consistently narcissistic – a fantasy of how one man’s disappearance would derail those around him, how the women he loved would maintain his innocence, and how quickly and destructively everyone else would assume the worst about his character, because, you know, that is what happens these days.
Clickbait is yet another digital-concerned show/film that gestures at big ideas about the internet – catfishing, cancel culture, surveillance, etc – but fails to capture the contours of life on it, both on an emotional level and on an aesthetic one. The copyright-dodging facsimiles here (“QueriNow” as Google, various fake dating sites, rip-offs of Facebook and Reddit, texting interface that looks more 2011 than 2021) are budget practical but ultimately distracting, giving the show the feel of an askew frame – off-balance, squinted, a simulacrum of digital life that feels cheap and badly distilled into not-quite-plausible bogeymans.
The horror in Clickbait, so much as there is any, is in people’s complete callousness in the face of grief, though the show stops short of illustrating how the internet’s infinite bullhorn allows for people to gawk at others’ pain. The masses here (the hordes of journalists outside the Brewers’ house is a consistent plot point) exist merely as a blanket condemnation.
Other elements of societal commentary are similarly boiled down to tick marks. Race goes questionably unmentioned until the sixth episode, when Sophie remarks that Pia should be wary of taking Ethan, a black teenager, to the Oakland police, written with all of the nuance of “hey, we know we need to say something here!” The use of various potentially dystopian tech – geo-tagging, hacking, crowdsourcing, device tracking – are shoehorned in with “I read an article” details and implications.
But that is perhaps analyzing above the show’s weight. Ultimately, the bar for a series like Clickbait – dropped all at once, aimed to be consumed wholesale on your laptop – is that it delivers on its hooks, and I can’t even say it’s compulsively watchable. None of the characters are granted enough depth to lodge in your psyche even when consumed over the course of several hours. Detective Amiri, a Muslim-American with ex-wife, toddler and concerned immigrant family, is offered the most intriguing and under-represented backstory, but it goes no farther than the second episode. Somewhat promising sexual tension between Amiri and Pia is, likewise, stiltedly hinted, stunted and then abandoned.
Pia and Sophie’s rivalry for Nick’s attention and inevitable reconciliation never extends beyond narrative convenience, and the female characters as a whole remain almost solely defined by their connections to Nick and feelings about him. Gabriel and Kazan attempt to deepen the scant characterization but end up doubling down on one note – for Kazan, stomping exasperation; for Gabriel, chastened fury – to the point of annoyance.
Even the show’s central mystery – what kind of guy Nick Brewer was, and what happened to him – fades by the middle episodes, as Clickbait pedantically suggests we’re in the wrong for assuming, with evidence, that a guy’s decency is suspect. The resolution of the numerous plot twists are increasingly ludicrous and deliberately indiscernible to the audience, given the information presented. True to title, Clickbait head-fakes, but not to a place you’re likely to relish.
Clickbait is available on Netflix on 25 August