Hell Hath No Fury Like the Hunt for a Scumbag in Showtime’s Riveting ‘Love Fraud’
There was no other way to tell the story of Showtime’s “Love Fraud” than as a docuseries. Stories of jilted lovers or husbands who turned out to be fraudsters are common cons in soaps and Lifetime movies. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady go behind the stereotypes to tell a story full of suspense, but also farcical tragedy. It’s a hunt for revenge, but also a reflection on loneliness and how some individuals survive by living in a web of lies.
The villain of this four-episode saga is Richard Scott Smith, who has wooed and married numerous women, usually after meeting them online. His technique over the years has been the same: First presenting himself as a stable, established guy with his head on straight. He also hunts intelligently, seeking middle-aged women around his own age range, who are lonely and seeking companionship. Once he gets thoroughly into their world Smith, who also likes to use other names, tends to marry the women and sucker them out of all their money. Whether it’s investments, purchases, including ownership of a Krab Kingz, Smith gets what he needs to fund his lifestyle. Then, he vanishes, leaving debt and emotional turmoil in his wake. Sick of it all, his victims have put together a blog to share their stories and track Smith down. But venting isn’t enough and the women go to Carol, a Kansas bounty hunter, to begin a process of definitively trapping the asshole and bringing him to justice.
“Love Fraud” could have easily become a high-end version of shows like “Cheaters,” but Ewing and Grady find the pathos in this sad tale of deception. As filmmakers they have combined the strange and evocative before, most famously in their 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about radical Pentecostals indoctrinating children in extreme right-wing politics. In that documentary the pair even managed to interview disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, another huckster who would have a very public downfall. What they do so well is not exaggerate their approach. “Love Fraud” never over-emphasizes the bounty hunter angle or gets desperate for salacious details about Smith’s marriages. It is instead a fascinating character study. Who is Smith? Why would he even have the guts to do this? His boldness is astounding enough. Tension is generated in simply wanting to find him, to get up close and demand answers from such an outrageous person. Ewing and Grady also treat the victims with absolute respect, letting them tell their stories and express their rage without sensationalism. They could be any one of us, just seeking an escape from loneliness. The filmmakers manage to track down relatives of the fraudster, including his sister and aunt, who reveal surreal and tragic details of his upbringing. They don’t make excuses for what he’s done, but provide some sense of what experiences shaped his twisted narcissism.
Yet it can’t be denied there’s a natural, dark humor that emerges out of the story. Smith could never be in the league of infamous fraudsters who manage to steal millions or ruin entire companies. He’s some kind of bizarre, small time operator who just wants to have a new car once in a while, own a seafood joint for a few months or fantasize about getting a house in Belize. He would surely tremble like a leaf if he comes face to face with Carol, the chain-smoking bounty hunter over middle age who could still demolish any Hollywood action hero. She lives to catch scumbags, but still tells the women to consider going on FarmersOnly.com to find a decent guy, since there’s not many left. When the women share about Smith we feel for them. Sure, he rushed things, telling them “I love you” a little too fast, but at a certain age people seeking romance move quicker. Never do the interviews come across as soapy. Instead they are stories about just how fragile and quirky we are when yearning for partnership. Smith has such a way of luring people in he completely brainwashes the father of an ex, who also remains devoted to him as a friend despite all the information coming out about his activities.
“Love Fraud” should be studied by documentary students for its brilliant editing style as well. Ewing and Grady manage to balance the story of Smith’s victims with the intense effort to hunt him down. Carol and other investigators brought in have to swim through Smith’s well-covered trail online, around Kansas and bordering states and anywhere where he might have left paperwork. Even with two warrants on him, the huckster still manages to evade capture. Hidden cameras might catch him walking into a karaoke bar with a new girlfriend, or that might be him walking out of a Super 8 motel. The final episode is absolutely riveting. Its closing scenes challenge the very idea of whether you can ever truly apply “justice” to such a personality.
You could easily call “Love Fraud” a real-life thriller. But while the search for Smith becomes absorbing, it’s also a suspense tale of the heart and dark personalities. In a wider sense it’s about how we search for love in different ways. The women sought a real partner, Smith wanted to feel wanted while also coldly ruining and stealing from his targets. This docuseries is addictive and strangely illuminating. It’s about a monster who preyed on nothing more than tenderness.
“Love Fraud” premieres Aug. 30 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.