Courtesy of Sundance Institute
In Showtimes new docuseries Love Fraud, women band together to track down a conman who swept them off their feet before stealing their money, identities, and dignity.
Richard Scott Smith just wants to be loved.
At least thats what he tells us, in voiceover, during the first few moments of Showtimes new docuseries Love Fraud, a draggy but galvanizing portrait in four parts that charts Scotts gross history of deceiving, manipulating, and stealing from women hes dated. Scott may very well want to be loved. But over the course of the series, what emerges is less a portrait of a romantic-gone-wrong than a garden-variety assholea sociopath whose villainy is so obvious that spending over three hours studying his scams and assaults feels akin to dissecting a rotten piece of fruit to understand why it isnt juicy.
Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), the series opens on Tracy, a middle-aged woman in Kansas City. Her daughters are doing her hair and makeup as she preps for a date. Dating in your forties sucks, she says as we watch her swipe on prospects profiles. When she matched with Mickey, he felt different: He was doting and fun, taking her out for motorcycle joy-rides and telling her he loved her and couldnt stand to be away from her. They moved in together, soon got engaged to be married, and then he splitbut not before combining their accounts and draining her savings.
Tracy is one of at least 10 women who Scott scammed in this way, most of them going through the exact same rigmarole. He was like the perfect partner, reflects an Arkansas woman named Ellen as the doc presents us with more and more of the eerily-similar stories, cutting among them to paint a larger picture of Scotts disturbing modus operandi. In each case, Scott gave the women no reason to doubt him. Things go at a different pace at that age, explains Tracy, who was 47 at the time of meeting him. Suspicions shouldnt have to attend adoration.
As we learn more about Scotts lies, we feel ickier and ickier. He would perform different roles for his girlfriends, playing Christian or atheist, using a variety of names and backstories, telling them he was about to receive millions of dollars from a medical malpractice lawsuit. Meeting this ideal man, says a woman named Sabrina, was like a golden ticket for me. I just was like, God does love me.
Fortunately, most of the women would go on to find a website: a blog created by a former girlfriend detailing Scotts lies and warning others against falling for the same tricks. As more of the women stumbled upon it and commented, the blog became a kind of dossier, helping to piece together Scotts countless offenses. It would also, they hoped, be the key to tracking him down.
This is where the documentary team seems to enter the story, arriving just as the women are beginning to form a coalition. Together, they solicit the help of Carla, a hard-nosed bounty hunter who agrees to help them find him. The rest of the series is devoted to this mission, accompanying the women as they follow leads and investigate tips shared on the blog.
The issue with this approach is that the series soon becomes the Richard Scott Smith show, a probing inquiry into a guy whos nearly as dull as his name. While direct access to Scott is limitedthe whole point is that hes out of reach for most of the seriesScotts presence permeates every minute of screen time. We hear about him from his family members, watch a constant stream of his photos and videos, and listen to all of the women he wronged obsess over exacting their revenge on him.
Worst of all, were subjected to constant reminders of Scotts supposed intellect. He looks like a dumbass but hes not, remarks Carla at one point, an idea we hear repeated in various forms throughout the series. It makes sense why it would be prudent to portray Scott as clever: When the women he conned are being gaslit into believing that their credulityor even their desperation for loveis to blame, it helps to remember that Scott was strategic at his game. But being a shameless conman doesnt make you smart, and it definitely doesnt make you worthy of 300 minutes of our attention.
Richard Scott Smith of Love Fraud
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Stylistically, the series unfolds like a true-crime mystery, parking itself at the intersection of the Me Too era and the age of the scam. Confessional- style interviews with women are often intercut with intriguing collage-like animations, and mystery-movie music intermittently overlays sequences depicting their search. These choices serve to heighten the drama aesthetically, and the animation especially feels fresh and appealing, pairing pops of color with Terry Gilliam-style cutouts.
There are undoubtedly benefits to telling this type of story. Its encouraging to watch the women join together in a unified front against Scotts wickedness. The blog, which becomes a critical tool in their alliance, feels symbolic, evoking other spacesboth online and offwhere women have shared whispered insights and found solace in numbers.
The documentary could have explored this more, zooming out to position these womens stories in an ecosystem of male manipulation or online scamming or female solidarity. Unless he kills somebody, they dont give a shit, says Sabrina in a throwaway line about her efforts to seek help from the copsan infuriating idea that the documentary declines to investigate further. Because so many of the women met Scott online, I found myself also hoping that the series would inquire into how dating sites have acknowledged (or failed to acknowledge) Scotts misuse of their services. Are dating sites doing anything to intercept and block these sorts of users? Based on Love Fraud I wouldnt know, but I do know a lot about Richard Scott Smiths pathology.
A major risk in this type of villain-portrait is to mythologize or glorify the act of tricking people into dating. Weve learned from movies like John Tucker Must Die and innumerable Matthew McConaughey rom-coms that bamboozling women into love can amount to a kind of masculine powerone thats admirable and amusing, even when the women manage to turn the tables and spite the men in return. While Love Fraud never strays from presenting Scott as a disturbing criminal, the docuseries ascribes a thread of intrigue to his movements. As we dog his every step, theres an ongoing effort to psychoanalyze his behavior in a way that actually serves to humanize him. At times, the series feels like a flabby pathological portrait thats both tedious and frustrating.
Ill do anything to be somebodys everything, Scott says in voiceover at the beginning of the series. Theres a tinge of irony to the filmmakers use of this line: By stealing emotion, time, and money from these middle-aged women, Scott does take on a larger-than-life status for them, upending their ability to continue their ordinary lives. Over its four episodes, Love Fraud unpleasantly makes him our everything too, endeavoring to peel away his layers one by one. But as many of his ex-wives and girlfriends once found, theres little at his core that was worth the effort.