“Love Fraud” plays like the real-life equivalent of a Lifetime movie turned, for better and worse, into a salacious Showtime docuseries. Although there are plenty of juicy bits in this tale of a guy who wooed and fleeced women he met online, the filmmakers focus on the micro of the story at the expense of the bigger picture – in a way that’s entertaining, but shallow.
At the core of this four-part project sits Richard Scott Smith, who one of his exes calls “a thief, a liar and a con man.” Those women eventually helped bring about his apprehension, with the help of a colorful bounty hunter named Carla, who definitely would be the star of the movie, probably played by Kathy Bates or Allison Janney. (Think Rob Lowe as the smooth-talking Smith.)
The first hour rifles through how Smith, using various aliases, found and beguiled multiple women, professing his love for them after a few weeks, and eventually absconding with tens of thousands of dollars.
His victims, meanwhile, discuss how charming he was and the challenges meeting people online, with one complaining, “If you were dating in today’s world, you can’t find anybody.”
There’s obviously something cathartic about seeing these victims turn the tables and unite to mete out justice. But directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady get so drawn into the investigative part of the case – and so the eccentric characters, including one who compares herself to Heather Locklear in “Melrose Place” – that there’s scant effort to put the notion of social isolation and vulnerability into any sort of broader context, either through the voices of third-party experts or law enforcement.
What emerges, then, is basically just a manhunt scenario, capped off by an interview with Smith, which is, admittedly, pretty riveting. Not that his defense appears to hold much water, discussing his rough childhood and just being a wide-eyed romantic and fool for love.
The filmmakers employ animation to help visualize the story, a tactic that occasionally has its place but generally works best in a documentary format when used sparingly. They fare better with the musical score, weaving in songs like Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” which seems especially appropriate.
The quirky nature of “Love Fraud” certainly makes for a watchable exercise, but the show nevertheless feels like a missed opportunity. There is, as noted, a lot of similar fare, and Smith’s schemes and those he duped have the potential to tell us something a bit more profound about society and dating in today’s age, in the way that “Catfish” did.
Instead, “Love Fraud” settles for the basic TV-procedural, true-crime side of the story, leaving the material – as juicy as it is – conspicuously shortchanged.
“Love Fraud” premieres Aug. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.