UPDATE: In response to the social media backlash against the premise of Prank Encounters, a Netflix spokesperson issued the following statement: "The pranks in Prank Encounters are spooky, supernatural, and over the top, and everyone had a great time. All participants came in with the expectation this was a one-day, hourly gig and everyone got paid for their time."
Prank Encounters, Netflix's planned prank show with Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo, has been met with fan outrage, and for good reason. When the streaming service announced plans to produce a hidden camera prank show, the concept couldn’t help but attract scrutiny. The reports of the show’s concept didn’t help put concerned minds at ease either. Prank Encounters was described on Netflix’s See What’s Next Twitter account as "a hidden camera prank show where two strangers each think it's their first day at a new job. It's business as usual until their paths collide and these part-time jobs turn into full-time nightmares." Gaten Matarazzo, best known as Dustin on Stranger Things (one of the most popular shows on the platform), is credited as both host and executive producer.
Social media responded with fervent negativity towards Prank Encounters, with many noting how unnecessarily cruel the set-up seemed. Deceiving people who are out of work and potentially desperate for employment into such a hostile situation without their knowledge couldn’t help but make people worry about the possible consequences of such a situation. It’s a show idea that feels so very unlike Netflix, who have worked hard to build up a reputation based on prestige and quality, but it’s also one that feels completely out of touch with modern entertainment. Many wondered how active Matarazzo, who is only sixteen, was in pitching the idea, or if he was simply surrounded by Yes Men who told him it would be a wonderful idea.
Either way, setting up a teenager to be the public face of Prank Encounters was misguided at best and outright callous at worst. Of course, the problems surrounding Prank Encounters go far beyond its own premise and its potential for cruelty.
Prank Shows Can Easily Go Wrong
Understandably, prank shows don’t have a great reputation. They’re typically billed as creatively lazy and ethically suspect, much in the way reality TV, in general, is discussed. In recent years, television networks and producers have been heavily criticized for the way contestants are treated on such shows, with many questioning the lack of help given in the aftermath of that initial success. In the UK, the hugely popular series Love Island has faced such queries regarding aftercare and improper counseling given to people following the suicides of two contestants. It’s extremely difficult to prepare someone for the uniquely full-on experience of being on a reality show, especially when the driving mood of the series is mockery. Add to that the deliberately spontaneous nature of a prank show format and one shouldn’t be surprised if things go haywire.
Prank shows are essentially walking liabilities. People can get hurt, innocent bystanders risk being embarrassed on a global scale, and the endless hunt for bigger shocks can lead people down dark paths. YouTube is testament to this, as famous prank videos include the now infamous Logan Paul faking his own murder as fans watched on. Shows like this have been taken to court for improper behavior and distress caused. In 2002 (via BBC), a couple sued MTV for $10 million after walking into their hotel room to discovered what looked like a crime scene, complete with a fake dead body and copious amounts of blood. The scene had been set up for a "guerrilla-style Candid Camera" show called Harassment, hosted by a pre-Punk'd Ashton Kutcher.
Targeting People Looking For Work Is Particularly Cruel
But Gaten Matarazzo's Netflix prank show isn't any old prank show. It's one that's targeting a group of people in a dire financial situation.
Anyone who has ever been out of work for an extended period of time will understand how emotionally difficult and demoralizing the experience can be. Being desperate for employment, be it due to your financial situation or your own mental well-being, is not something that should be exploited for cheap laughs. The potential for embarrassment and exploitation with Prank Encounters' set-up is shockingly high. For example, if an unwitting contestant takes the fake job, they may turn down real work offers to do so and not know what's going to happen. They may stop claiming unemployment benefits too. Even if there is financial compensation for this predicament, a one-off reward is still no substitute for the real job they thought they were getting. That doesn’t even take into account the emotional cost of this charade or the ethical murkiness of such a concept.
The Best Case Scenario is a Scripted Show
At the very least, there’s a solid chance that Gaten Matarazzo's Netflix prank show is scripted in some way. You will struggle to find a reality series that isn’t on some level pre-planned or driven by a carefully managed narrative where everyone involved knows what they’re getting into. Contestants on Prank Encounters may have some knowledge of what to expect, although the very format of a prank series would make this difficult. It would essentially defeat the purpose of a prank show.
The response to Prank Encounters so far has been universally negative, and for good reason. At best, this could be a misguided idea where good intentions couldn’t hold it together, and at worst, things could end very badly. Given the backlash to the mere idea of the series, it will be surprising if it ever makes it to Netflix.