Any television enthusiast knows that when it comes to bad shows, there’s a wide spectrum of “bad” possible. There are the ineptly made shows, the ones where you wonder if anyone involved had ever sat down to watch an episode of anything ever. Meanwhile, there is the enjoyably bad television that happily crosses the line into camp, where the basic experience of watching and poking fun provides enough entertainment to justify the show’s existence.
The new Netflix thriller Clickbait is not either of those things. It’s a fundamentally competent season of television, on the very basic level of successfully telling a coherent story. It might even said to be captivating, if only by virtue of the fact that the fundamental mystery is well-plotted and evolved in clever ways over the course of the eight episodes. (A successful strategy towards keeping a mystery captivating these days is to basically change what the core mystery happens to be on an episode-by-episode basis, something which Clickbait does nimbly.) However, it comes from such a fundamentally nasty place that while you might get hooked on what’s happening, by the end of the season you’ll just feel bad about having watched it.
Taking a page from shows like Lost, Clickbait tells its story from a variety of points-of-view, shifting the core perspective from episode to episode — though perhaps its best quality is that it’s not precious about this narrative conceit, using each new point-of-view to make the world of the show feel larger without abandoning characters established earlier. The series starts off with the disappearance of family man Nick (Adrian Grenier), following a fight with his sister Pia (Zoe Kazan) at their mother’s birthday party the night before. Said disappearance is followed by his reappearance in an online video that lays out a game that Jigsaw himself might admire: If the mean ol’ Internet watches this video of Nick confessing to certain crimes, including abusing women and causing someone’s death, five million times, then Nick dies.
Thus, it’s a race to save Nick as the views go up, while Pia and Roshan (Phoenix Raei), the primary detective on the case, try to figure out why someone would have targeted Nick like this, and Nick’s wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel) tries to preserve the family secrets which may or may not be involved. No spoilers here, but after several twists and reveals, all the layers are peeled back on the ensemble cast, reaching a conclusion that does offer up all the answers you might want, but not in a way that’s particularly satisfying. It’s not super-shocking, to be clear. It’s just a mix of sad and tragic and silly and awful.
There’s some strong acting from the ensemble, with Kazan and Gabriel in particular really carrying the material. But let me be explicitly clear about this: It is very rare that I will say “do not watch this show,” whether it be to a friend in casual conversation or to readers in print, because key to my passion for scripted entertainment is the belief that there is redeeming value in pretty much everything. However, while there are some bright spots to Clickbait, they do not justify the overall experience of watching the show. It is an unpleasant show built on a semi-compelling mystery, and yes, if you watch to the end the full mystery will be unveiled, but while you’ll know what happened, you won’t feel good about it. There’s something intrinsically nasty and mean about this show’s outlook on the world, and while it does contain something resembling a central thesis about how the Internet has fractured the ways in which we connect with each other, it’s not exactly essential messaging.
Put it another way: You know how sometimes you’ll taste something so bad that you instinctually look around for someone else to share that gross taste with? “It’s so bad, you gotta try this?” Clickbait isn’t like that. It’s so bad, you really should just stay away, because not only is the initial taste pretty bad, the aftertaste is worse, and it lingers. Here’s how seriously I take warning you away from this show — I take no pleasure in writing pans like this, so I originally considered writing this whole review as a joke about how Vinny Chase’s recent career choices have been really bad, because I am low-key obsessed with the show Entourage and love to goof on it and Adrian Grenier. But instead, I denied myself such pleasures to focus on this core message: If you watch Clickbait, well, you were warned. This is less a review and more a public service announcement: Just don’t do it. Watch other shows.
And yes, I’m writing this fully aware that there are people who will read this, decide to watch for themselves, and then will track me down on Twitter to tell me I’m some variety of oversensitive baby, and that the show isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be. I know that, but I’m still writing this anyway. You know how we keep saying there’s too much TV out there? Well, one of the advantages to that is that you don’t have to watch every new show that comes out. If you’re hungering for new mystery shows and you already watched Mare of Easttown (a fundamentally better show on every possible level), get an Acorn TV subscription. That’s just one streaming service hosting literally hundreds of hours of TV mysteries that don’t fundamentally hate humanity the way Clickbait does. Start watching at your own peril. And know that it honestly doesn’t get better by the end.