Nathan Fielder is like a modern-day Sacha Baron Cohen. His comedy is very bleak and very dry, he is always putting other people in awkward situations. His new series, “The Rehearsal,” is a postmodern, abstract, and no holds barred deconstruction of the reality show genre. It’s also a genius work of art.
Fielder’s previous show, “Nathan for You,” was a reality series in which Fielder tricked his subjects into believing he was helping their struggling business until it was too late. He always chose real struggling businesses for the show and he always tricked real people. Fielder’s subjects believed his often ridiculous advice, perhaps because they were desperate or because he had confidence and money. After all, in the show’s intro, Fielder bragged that he had “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades” (with the screen showing his report card that consisted of C+’s). There was an episode in his previous show wherein Fielder proved he could make people fall in love with the most awkward television personality. In the episode, called “Haunted House/The Hunk,” Fielder crafted a fake reality show that he dubbed “The Hunk.” He hired a host and a group of girls for the experiment, which nobody knew was an experiment, even the host. The fake series was a “The Bachelor” type show, where Fielder wanted the girls to fall in love with him. While it is questionable as to whether the girls fell in love with Fielder, he certainly seemed to think so by the end of the episode. This does not begin to show the lengths he would go to mess with his “Nathan for You” subjects. (It can be debated if his apparent “awkwardness” is rehearsed in the show to make his subjects as uncomfortable as possible.)
“The Rehearsal” is different from “Nathan for You” because Fielder’s subjects are aware that they are participating in an HBO documentary. They are mostly told what is going to happen to them. What’s more, all of Fielder’s previous material is widely available online. “Nathan for You” is streaming on Hulu and “How to with John Wilson,” a show he produced, is on HBO Max. With all this accessible material, the subjects should be quite familiar with what they’re about to go through, but they don’t bother to do their research beforehand. This often makes for a joke in itself. In the first episode, Fielder’s first subject is a self-proclaimed “television expert.” Nathan has a hilarious interaction with the man. He says something to the effect of, “obviously you’re familiar with me and my previous work on ‘Nathan for You.’” The man looks confused and claims that he has never heard of the extremely popular, critically acclaimed, prime-time Comedy Central series.
The premise of “The Rehearsal” is simple. Fielder helps people with impending difficult situations, whether confessing a secret to a friend or “helping” a family deal with their passing family member’s inheritance money, by creating elaborate sets and hiring actors to help those people rehearse these scenarios. The show is similar to the filmography of Charlie Kaufman with its portrayal of existentialism and internal personal struggles. In the first episode, the “television expert” has a confession that he wants to tell his friend. He and his friend habitually play trivia together in a restaurant, and he plans to give his confession there. So Fielder recreates the entire restaurant and hires actors who look like the restaurant’s employees. This gives the “television expert” an opportunity to rehearse his confession.
The episode leads the audience to believe that the show will be episodic and relatively lighthearted. However, the second episode takes an unexpected turn. To analyze this change in tone and, in turn, the changes in subsequent episodes, would be like asking David Lynch about the deeper meanings behind his films. The succeeding five episodes of season one are unanalyzable. The show blends reality and fantasy so seamlessly that it almost feels abstract in its presentation.
What audiences need to know is that the show at least borders on the unethical. The viewer is not shown exactly what Fielder scripted, which makes certain events feel dirty when they unfold. Much like Bo Burnham’s “Inside,” the audience is left to question whether the material they just saw was real. Each episode gets more bizarre as the show goes on. The horrors of the final episode may make viewers wonder why HBO would think it was ok to release a show that caused so much emotional and psychological damage. It’s hard to explain why the show works the way it does, given what it turns out to be about. However, it does. It’s very engaging, it’s very exciting, and at times, it’s really, really funny.
At the very least, Fielder’s vulnerable side is highlighted throughout the series. As a character who is usually portrayed as a sociopath, audiences should take comfort in knowing Fielder feels bad for the subjects. This never happens in any of his other shows, which truly captures how far he goes in this one. It gets so bad that he even attempts to make things right in the end – in own way, of course. However, that may be staged as well. He might not even feel bad for the subjects, and he might never have tried to make things right, in reality. The latter half might’ve all been scripted, which renders the show ultimately pointless… which is the most disturbing aspect of Fielder’s latest masterpiece.
To reiterate, it’s hard to explain why it works, but it does. “The Rehearsal’s” brilliance lies in its heartbreaking ambiguity.