Showtime’s docuseries about a love ’em & leave ’em con artist looks good but suffers from a lack of focus.
While people have been defrauded by their lovers since the beginning of time, the internet has made it easier than ever. Anyone can fake a more charming personality and more successful lifestyle on a dating app. The ability to construct an entirely fake virtual identity has boon for the 21st-century con man.
One such con man is Richard Scott Smith (who uses multiple names, so for clarity I will call “Smith”). He uses apps like Tindr and Plenty of Fish to date women, showering them with love and marriage proposals, only to disappear after he’s maxed out their credit cards.
This grift has been successful for two decades, but his victims are getting their revenge with Showtime’s newest docu-series, Love Fraud, which tells the stories of the women he’s scammed and documents their search for justice.
Directed and produced by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, the four-part series is billed as a real-time search for Smith. But the hunt is only a small fraction of the show’s narrative. Much of the series focuses on his victims telling their stories with some interviews of people who know Smith to give some possible insight into why he does what he does.
This focus away from the manhunt for Smith is one of Love Fraud’s biggest stumbling blocks. Obviously, it’s important for the victims’ voices to be heard, but it begins to feel monotonous when we see the same story over and over again (the man had a standard M.O.).
This focus away from the manhunt for Smith is one of Love Fraud’s biggest stumbling blocks.
It doesn’t help that there is a distinct lack of central figures in Love Fraud. We are shown a multitude of victims, most of whom are only shown once and never mentioned again, and even those who are shown multiple times don’t get much screen time. With so many women who fell prey to Smith’s charm, it’s inevitable that most won’t take a huge part of the story, and there are even a few who get their own “arc” in the show (mainly a woman who reunites with her husband after stealing his 401K to be with Smith), but it would have been great to see at least a few victims from throughout the narrative.
If there is any central protagonist in this story, it would be Carla, the bounty hunter who is spearheading the search for Smith. It’s clear why Grady and Ewing would want to put a huge focus on her. Not only is she the person searching for Smith, she’s also just fascinating to watch. Tough as nails with a down to earth charisma, Carla is the perfect heroine for this story and easily the highpoint of the show. It’s unfortunate that she isn’t given more screen time.
Without a major narrative drive or a core focus, the series begins to feel aimless. While Grady and Ewing do a wonderful job at making you want to see Smith come to justice, the meandering nature of the show fails at holding your interest.
The most frustrating thing about it is that Grady and Ewing have made documentaries with loose narratives work. Their first (and arguably most famous) documentary, Jesus Camp, was mostly just a documentation of an American subculture with no real plot to speak of, and yet it never gets boring. The difference is that Love Fraud is more than twice as long as Jesus Camp, and as such the slow parts feel more noticeable. This is a story that needed to be told, but I don’t think Grady and Ewing needed over three hours to tell it
While there are parts of Love Fraud that are dull to watch, it’s never dull to look at. This is a visually gorgeous series. The establishing shots feature slow pans across city streets and rural areas, giving the often overlooked “flyover states” a dreamlike quality. Cinematographer Alex Takats utilizes a location’s natural lights (such as neon signs and streetlights) in a way that feels cinematic and stylish. This keeps the series from feeling like a standard “true crime” documentary, which can sometimes feel clinical. Instead, the cinematography lets us into the minds of the people being documented, making their inner lives feel more intimate.
Also helping us get into their headspace are the fun collages created by Martin O’Neill and animated by Andrew Griffin. Due to the relative obscurity of the participants, there isn’t much footage of Smith and the people being interviewed. The collages are used instead of media, and they are fantastic. A mix of old photographs and new artwork, the collages give a sense of action without being too matter fact and add a bit of surrealism to a more grounded story.
With its gorgeous visuals and the fascinating nature of its subject, it’s a shame that Love Fraud’s slow pace often outweighs its more positive aspects. To be sure, its amorphous structure is most likely due to the limitations of shooting a documentary, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
But despite any drawbacks of the show, the fact that it brings up Smith’s crime is a net positive. I’m not going to disclose what happens to Smith, but any prison time isn’t going to deter a committed conman. This series won’t get his victims their money back, and it won’t erase the pain he’s caused them. What it will do is detail the nature of Smith’s crimes and show his face to a national audience. If the release of this show will help a woman avoid getting scammed by this scumbag, it will have been worth it.
Love Fraud is now available on Showtime