Table of Contents
Photo: ‘The Rehearsal’
The Difference from ‘Nathan for You’
Things never go as planned in life, but Nathan Fielder will be damned if he doesn’t give it his best shot.
In his new reality series ‘The Rehearsal’ with HBO, Fielder attempts the impossible: accurately predicting the future. But get any ideas about tarot cards or time travel out of your head, because this is Nathan Fielder we’re talking about — graduate of one of Canada’s top business schools (with really good grades).
Yes, the cult leader of the acclaimed series “Nathan for You” is back and in his awkward, giving spirit, he’s here to help. This time around, though, Fielder isn’t interested in founding Dumb Starbucks or inventing a DIY workout plan to help a moving company cut costs. Now, he’s a self-help guru with social anxiety. He wants to help you rehearse something you’ve been putting off — a conversation, motherhood, etc. — but in the only way, Nathan Fielder can: by elaborately simulating the event to every last detail, to exact scale. For Fielder, that means dozens of paid actors, an exact replica of the Alligator Lounge in Williamsburg, and robot babies. Different context, but it’s the same old Nathan Fielder, going to extreme lengths to pull off the seemingly insignificant. But now it’s different. Now, things are personal.
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The difference between “Nathan for You” and “The Rehearsal” is the explicit lengths Fielder is willing to go to mess with someone for comedy. His former show offered ridiculous fixer-upper strategies for struggling businesses, which kept things on the surface, and Fielder’s awkwardness was mostly harmless. It involved real people’s livelihoods, which always kept the show on the exciting razor’s edge of “too far,” but either way the businesses were willing participants, likely to receive a boost from the free advertising regardless of the scheme. Fielder’s awkwardness, if uneasing to his clients, only endeared him to us. Was it sheer ineptitude that led him to double cross a paid actor into showing up at his fiancee’s house with wine and roses? Or was Fielder purposely teasing out the maximum amount of discomfort for everyone? The latter, probably, but there’s really no telling how much of Fielder’s shtick is an act. Either way, it’s hilarious.
By attending to people’s personal issues, ‘The Rehearsal’ pushes the envelope of its potential cruelty, but yields perhaps even more hilarious — and strangely heartfelt — results. It starts with a Craigslist ad: “Is there something you’re avoiding?”
‘The Rehearsal’ – The Premise and Characters
Kor, a trivia aficionado, feels he needs to come clean to his trivia team about his educational background (he only has a bachelor’s, not a master’s). After a few minutes of the stiffest introductory niceties, you’ll ever see between two people, Fielder reveals that every joke, every step around Kor’s apartment, was a meticulous calculation. “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that,” says Fielder in a voiceover. “Humor is my go to instinct, but every joke is a gamble.” So in a way that makes sense only to him, he’d set out to reduce that gamble. He’d sent an undercover team to Kor’s apartment weeks ago to blueprint his apartment, creating a life-size replica of his apartment down to the books on the bookshelf. Interspersed between his real-life conversation with Kor, we see Fielder, with an actor, honing the conversation to a t, controlling for variables, and preparing for potential blow-ups or diversions. This is what Fielder offers Kor: a scientific approach to personal connection.
Kor accepts, and the cringing begins. The problem with “The Rehearsal” is also its greatest strength. The subjects agreeing to Fielder’s terms and cameras are easy comedic prey because they have made themselves vulnerable enough to admit they need “professional” help with their personal decisions. Fielder interacts with them in three ways: as an Actor, a Voiceover, and a Director. The Actor, for the most part, carries out the will of the Director, intent on teasing out the maximum amount of absurdity, while the Voiceover convinces you in his deadpan delivery that it’s all in genuine service of his client. There’s no doubt it’s manipulative, but it’s all a question of whether the entertainment outweighs the harm. Kor, for instance, offers raw insight into his life, believing the gaze of the cameras is benevolent, here to document Fielder’s revolutionary system. In one scene, Fielder wants to bond with Kor as they undertake his rehearsal, so they head to the shooting range (because Kor’s last name is “Skeet”). Dubbed over footage of the pair missing every disc, Fielder the Voiceover reveals he’d had the guns filled with blanks “in the hopes of a moment of bonding because we were both bad at this.”
“Wow,” remarks Fielder in the scene. “We’re not good at this.”
“Eh,” shrugs Kor. “But it’s nice to have a new experience.”
Malicious or Delicious?
The context Fielder puts his subjects in is morally dubious, legally questionable, but undeniably hilarious. Fielder’s clients foil his borderline sociopathic acting with bursting authenticity. You know they aren’t actors because no one could deliver these kinds of performances. A cordial school teacher more concerned with trivia than his admitting to his lie. A zealous Christian woman who wants to simulate motherhood, despite not having the husband she says she requires. Her weed-smoking boyfriend, who won’t stop talking about numerology and “totaling his Scion TC at a 100 miles per hour.” Fielder the Director, and indeed the Actor does a brilliant job at extracting every last, “this can’t be real” detail, while Fielder the Voiceover is strictly business.
Fielder the Director knows precisely where the good television is: the exploitation of good faith. Even though Fielder the Voiceover pretends he’s doing a service for a client. The score of the show is intense and often epic sounding because the Director knows the ingredients he’s cooking with a tug at the heartstrings, ironic or not. Regardless of how it happens, these are people in desperate search of connection, companionship, and motherhood. To them, Fielder’s here to help them, and although he’d like the viewer to believe it too, we know what he’s really up to. And at the moment, we thank him for it.
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The lengths he’ll go to manipulate his clients are dizzying, and unlike anything you’ll ever see attempted on television. In the third episode, Fielder is rehearsing Patrick for a conversation with his brother, played by an actor, about getting his portion of his grandfather’s will. His brother won’t fork it over, though, because he believes Patrick’s girlfriend is a “gold digger.” In order to simulate the emotions Patrick should be feeling in this situation, Nathan stages an elaborate plot that, long story short, causes Patrick to harbor the same emotions toward the actor as his brother.
It is perhaps the single most manipulative thing I have ever seen done for comedy. I also laughed so hard I cried.
The funniest part about Fielder’s insane plans? In a crooked way, they keep, kind of, working. Even as Fielder pushes the limits of his concocted sitcom, they somehow keep producing the desired results. And if his clients deviate from his ultimate plans, it often makes for heartfelt moments.
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Kor, after rehearsing weeks for his confession to his trivia partner, freezes when the real-life moment comes. We see him in an excruciating moment we all recognize, then, bravely he goes off script. To Fielder the Voiceover’s chagrin, he talks with his friend for over an hour, spilling about his father, his childhood, and the two have a lovely moment.
But Fielder the Director knows that what he’s been given is as good television as anything he’d gotten before. It’s questionable, alright, but it doesn’t seem malicious. I have a feeling you’ll find yourself watching every episode just to make sure.
Fielder also serves as EP of ‘How To: with John Wilson,’ which has been renewed for a third season by HBO. Be sure to check it out, as the rest of the first season of ‘The Rehearsal’ airs!
Cast and Crew:
Director: Nathan Fielder
Writers: Nathan Fielder, Carrie Kemper, Eric Notarnicola
Cast: Nathan Fielder
Producers: Nathan Fielder, Dan McManus, Davin Michaels, Eric Notarnicola, Amanda Schulz, Christie Smith, Carrie Kemper, Adam Locke-Norton, Dave Paige, Clark Reinking
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.