4 out of 5
Created by: Tony Ayres and Christian White
With the buzzword title and online snuff-ish premise – family man Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier) appears online in a going-viral video under seeming duress, holding up placards confessing to abuse, and murder, and a final “I die at 5,000,000 views” promise – Clickbait already seems pretty dated upon arrival. This is the fear-mongering stuff of early internet days, modernized by mentions of ‘dark web’ and leaning in to the never-tired theme of how social media platforms are manipulable, directly and indirectly. It gets a further timely boost by leaning in to ‘cancel culture’: Brewer was seen as a nice guy and a good husband, but as more information is dug up by the police and online snoopers, it seems that image was a facade.
None of this is helping Brewer’s family – wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel), sister Pia (Zoe Kazan), his sons, his mother – cope with what’s going on, especially as the investigation, from both the police and sleuth snoopers, begins revealing more and more secrets about Nick and those around him.
So Clickbait sounds pretty derivative in all regards, from its familiar setup to its by-the-books plumbing of familial secrets, surely involving plenty of red herrings and twists and last-minute reveals. But creators Tony Ayres and Christian White do a few important things along the way to keep those formulas stacked with addictiveness: they don’t try to overplay the technology; they don’t try to overplay the social media; and they actually let their characters lead the story, instead of carrot-stick leading us by way of forced clue dropping and withheld info – the fallback of many mysteries. In this way, and supported by very capable actors, Sophie’s and Pia’s reactions feel real, in context, and their next steps earned. The investigation proceeds at a logical pace, and with audience participation, as information comes to us the same time it does everyone else. While there are false leads, they don’t feel cheap, and arise organically from what we know; plus, they’re not unrewarding – even those leads give us something important to take things to the next step. And by not leaning into any excessive finger-wagging on scary internet sites or how easy it was for a vid of this nature to reach viral status, Clickbait actually does manage to be modern: we’re online now, it’s a normal enough thing (setting aside those who don’t have that convenience, note that this is a show that premiered on a streaming service…), and we get our news through soundbytes. Clickbait isn’t out to fear-monger or lecture on that, and rather uses it as its springboard to give its whodunnit a sharp edge. As a big success, it thus manages to actually make the setup frightening, as this relatively ‘grounded’ approach – not flinging over-the-top tech talk or “but what of the children?” moralizing at us – and character-first focus, makes Clickbait feel possible, more and more as we dig into it.
Out of this, though, there’s one thing that’s rather lacking: by the very nature of updating things, it brings us to a more modern question of credibility. Is what you see online true? This, again, isn’t a new question when its come to any form of media, but with more media outlets in the public’s hands, we (that public) have been granted more of a voice – and it’s a voice we’re learning to better listen to. Purposefully or not, Clickbait is very clickbaity – in the years around 2021, when the show was released – we have had many exposures of abuse and aggressions from noted figures, both current and past, and these figures, to an extent, are tried by the exhaustive court of public opinion. That could be said to be what Clickbait is mimicking… except it doesn’t deal with that at all. It focuses on the immediate effects upon Sophie and etc., but the show has some disturbing implications that it just completely avoids. This is a huge topic, so overall, I think that was the right move – to make this a whodunnit, and not even attempt some tossed off thinkpiece mentions on the subject – but it’s also this odd gap in things that, despite the praise on its focus I’ve highlighted above, picks up the whole show and places it in a slightly alternative reality. I can’t really suggest a solve for this, admittedly, but as entertaining as the mystery was, it might’ve been possible to up the emotional investment by seeding in some awareness of the current temperature of modern-day issues on which Clickbait touches.