There’s binge-watching and there’s cringe-watching.
With binge-watching, you click on the first episode of “The Mare of Easttown” or “Bridgerton” or “Euphoria” or “The Queen’s Gambit” and you’re instantly drawn in by the production values, the quality of the writing, the excellence of the performances — and you’re rarely disappointed by the entire journey.
Cringe-watching is when try out a series and it’s filled with implausible plot turns and soap opera cliffhangers from the jump — but you can’t help it, you have to see this thing through. (Hello, “Sex/Life” and “You” and “Nine Perfect Strangers.”) Sometimes you get a legit wine-and-popcorn, guilty-pleasure satisfaction from these shows. Sometimes not.
In the case of the Netflix social media-themed series “Clickbait,” it’s a “not.”
Despite a gimmicky but admittedly attention-getting opening hook, some stylishly rendered visuals and the best efforts of the talented cast, this is the kind of show that grows increasingly desperate to hold our interest until the mystery is solved — and then throws a cold towel in our face by revealing a major character made an absolute howler of a decision at a pivotal moment in the story, a decision so ridiculous it undercuts everything we’ve seen until that moment. You’ll want to hurl the remote across the room, but don’t do that because you might break it.
In the opening chapter of the eight-part series, handsome family man and good guy Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier) and his lovely and sweet wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel), along with their two teenage sons Ethan (Cameron Engels) and Kai (Jaylin Brewer), are celebrating the birthday of Nick’s mom at the Brewer home when Nick’s younger sister Pia (Zoe Kazan) makes a mess of things by showing up late, tipsy and confrontational. Fed up with years of Pia’s antics, Nick kicks her out of the house and says he wants her out of his life.
The next morning, Nick goes missing — and he goes viral. Battered and bruised, he appears in an online video, holding up handwritten signs that say, “I ABUSE WOMEN” and “AT 5 MILLION VIEWS I DIE.” (In a later video, he holds up a sign saying, “I KILLED A WOMAN.”) Is it some sort of sick prank? A Deep Fake Video?
Turns out Nick didn’t show up for his job as a physical therapist for a college women’s volleyball team in Oakland, and nobody has heard from him since he left a late-night message for Pia apologizing for his outburst and telling her they need to talk. Is it possible Nick really did hurt women and actually committed murder? Is this some sort of elaborate revenge plot by a crazed stalker? There’s no evidence of Nick straying from his marriage or hurting anyone, let alone committing murder — or is there?
It’s an intriguing setup, and we get the expected conversations about the sometimes-toxic nature of the Internet, as the views start piling up and many commenters express their certainty Nick is guilty and should burn for his crimes. There’s even a plot involving a tracking app that allows for hundreds of citizen detectives to stake out various patches of land in Oakland and then ping that area if they don’t find anything, thus narrowing the search for Nick.
Each episode of “Clickbait” follows the developing mystery from a different viewpoint. “The Detective” focuses on Roshan Amir (Phoenix Raei), a cop who becomes close with the Brewer family, even as he faces his own domestic strife. In the “Wife,” we learn Sophie’s relationship with Nick was far from perfect. “The Mistress” introduces one Emma Beesley, who claims she was in love with Nick, while “The Reporter” is mostly about a tabloid “journalist” (Abraham Lim) who doesn’t think twice about breaking the law if it means he’ll get the scoop that breaks this case wide open.
It’s an interesting approach, with some storylines more intriguing than others — and some quickly falling by wayside in red-herring fashion. At least a half-dozen possible suspects are introduced, as it appears Nick had multiple affairs under assumed names via various online dating apps. Meanwhile, nearly every time there’s a sensational development and the police rush to a possible crime scene, the cops allow the hysterical and pesky Pia to accompany them, which would NOT happen in anything approaching the real world.
“Clickbait” has a suitably noir-ish look and a few neat wrinkles, but far too often, we branch out and fall down too many different rabbit holes. There’s an abundance of characters but many of them are thinly drawn or pop up out of nowhere in arbitrary fashion just to advance the storyline. The cast turns in solid work and we appreciate the ambition and scope and timeliness of the subject matter, but the payoff is delivered off in currency that’s pure counterfeit.