TV or Not TV | Finding Fielder: “The Rehearsal”

By Kate Rennebohm

Nathan Fielder’s newest television show, The Rehearsal—which was renewed for a second season at the recent close of its dizzying six-episode run on HBO—is a true comedy, in the sense that it’s really a tragedy. A deeply funny show wrapped around a startling core of sadness, The Rehearsal sets its sights on the tangled notion that the more we instrumentalize or attempt to control the world, the more the reality of that world and those in it seems to escape us. This is not a novel concern: historians and philosophers have long argued over whether reality’s recession, as the flip side of individuals’ growing alienation from lived experience, dates from the Industrial Revolution, the Reformation, or some other, earlier event. But The Rehearsal’s dizzyingly sharp take on the issue reveals the extremity and particularly of the problem in the contemporary moment, shaped as it is by a profusion of instrumentalizations so simultaneously minute and expansive that we don’t even wonder anymore over the belief that everything—including ourselves—should fall under our own totalizing control, and thus our totalizing responsibility, and thus our totalizing guilt. 

As in Fielder’s previous show, the cult hit Nathan for You (which ran from 2013 to 2017 on Comedy Central), such control is here personified in The Rehearsal’s central character, Fielder himself. While Fielder’s persona is a little calmer and looser this time around, the basic parts remain: “Nathan” is a megalomaniac who craves connection with others, but who can only ever relate to them as players to be manipulated and directed in whatever outlandish scheme he’s currently concocting. Where Nathan for You had Fielder offering ludicrous plans to small business owners with the purported aim of helping them survive their inevitable demise at the hands of corporate America, The Rehearsal finds him offering others the chance to influence their own lives, in the same way that Nathan wants to manipulate his (and theirs): by “rehearsing” life events in advance, “writing” those events by enacting the scenarios dozens of times in concert with actors playing the participants’ friends and family, on perfectly reproduced sets that, in a running gag, Fielder and Co. can’t get enough of spending HBO’s money on. 

Fielder’s “Nathan” here is also something of a caricature of those directors who have populated the history of cinéma vérité films and re-enactment documentaries (think Rouch, Morris, Oppenheimer, etc.), with their faith in the power of strange, social-psychology-experiment-esque prompts and the camera’s presence to produce truths that would not emerge otherwise. The Rehearsal is, to an admirable degree, concerned with the tension at the heart of such films: the contradiction between the profound wish for a reality that would seem to ground us in the world—that is, for spontaneity, novelty, and unpredictability—and the control, manipulation, and stage-setting needed to produce the scenarios that furnish such authenticity. 

In a rather brilliant move, Fielder and his co-writers Carrie Kemper and Eric Notarnicola—both alumni of Nathan for You (while Notarnicola is also a key creative player in that other spiraling investigation of reality TV, Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema at the Cinema Cinematic Universe)—displace this problem from its usual, assumed location in the realm of metaphysics, instead tying the show’s search for reality to Nathan’s continual attempts at self-improvement. The genius at work here is that while Nathan’s quests to engineer his own humanity frequently let the show invoke the kinds of moral lessons and emotional effects so tidily applied to reality television narratives—as Nathan ruminates in voiceover about wanting to do the right thing, or how he’s gained insight into another’s feelings—Fielder and team then immediately and consistently pull the rug out from under any such perception of enlightenment, with Nathan proposing yet another obtuse and manipulative plan in response. In other words, while The Rehearsal stakes its claim that, for better or worse, the question of authenticity (as a catch-all for what seems to be so painfully missing from contemporary life) and the question of modern subjectivity (or the way we relate to contemporary life) cannot be separated, it does so with the full knowledge that neither can the latter realm be instrumentalized to solve the former problem.  

The gambit of filtering the moral quandaries of producing documentary film and reality TV through the character of Nathan also does something else for The Rehearsal: it lets the show get several steps ahead of the viewers and reviewers who have, rather predictably, responded to it with (morally) panicky accusations that Fielder is simply replicating the narcissism and cruelty the show purports to indict in the figure of Nathan, tricking and manipulating individuals into participating in extended jokes made at their expense, or harmfully leveraging their wish to be on television against them. But Fielder has come prepared for such eventualities by building a response to them within the show itself, with the incredible fourth episode, “The Fielder Method”—which offers a stunning investigation into the ethics and power dynamics of cultivating performances and creating characters—being only the most obvious example. 

The episode sees Nathan attempting to understand a young man named Thomas, a participant in an “acting class” he’s running in which Nathan has class members stalk strangers to extract and replicate the reality of those strangers’ lives, all in the name of achieving total verisimilitude in their acting so they might properly perform in future rehearsals. Aiming to understand Thomas and his reticence in the face of this plan, Nathan creates a secondary, post-facto rehearsal in which he “becomes” the actor. While Nathan first uses his vantage as Thomas to focus solely on “himself”—that is, the actor playing Nathan—and how he’s perceived by his students, he eventually runs this rehearsal again so he can focus on Thomas’ experience. Now, Nathan achieves surprisingly sympathetic insights into these would-be actors’ motivations for participating in the show—he recounts (imagines) in voiceover Thomas’ love of being on camera and his wish to impress the showrunners—before “discovering” that such motivations were later leveraged into pressuring the actors to sign releases without enough time to read or consider their agreement. 

Certainly, this and similar sequences in the show read as a kind of meta-acknowledgment from Fielder and his team that they know manipulation is at the core of The Rehearsal’s enterprise, and that this knowledge especially inculpates Fielder (while more obviously developing the extended gag that it would take anyone this much effort to come to such basic conclusions about another’s experience). Ultimately, the show leaves it to the viewer to decide whether such culpability should cancel out the value of The Rehearsal’s revelations. Primary amongst these is the plain fact that Nathan is hardly alone in his wish to—as per the show’s tagline—“reduce the uncertainties of life.” If the overwhelming demand to make the future forecastable characterizes our economic era—where money is made not from the production of actual goods, but from the successful prediction of future events—such a demand also saturates our current relations to ourselves and others. With the show’s hyper-awareness of this state of affairs, the various individuals participating in The Rehearsal’s rehearsals become avatars in its withering appraisal of the emotional and moral fallout of our moment, permeated as it is by media representations of hyper-polished, focus-tested personalities on the one hand, and an atmospheric terror at the thought of personally falling on the wrong side of any issue or code of behaviour on the other. Faced with such realities, who wouldn’t want a world where, in Nathan’s words, “You can always press the reset button and start over?”

The Rehearsal reminds its audience of the hollowness of such a world—our world—throughout, dramatizing this most obviously in an overarching plotline that has Nathan inserting himself into the show’s second-episode rehearsal, in which a woman named Angela agrees to rehearse raising a child. The plan? Have her move into her dream home in the country and look after a series of child actors who will age by 18 years over a few weeks. Unable to find her a suitable “dream partner”—though the man who briefly agrees to try rivals any of Nathan for You’s personages for sheerly jaw-dropping behaviour—Nathan asks if he can co-parent, confessing to the audience that he wants the kind of connection this faux-family might provide. And while Nathan’s ability to simply reset his created world at will—a gasp-inducing moment late in “The Fielder Method” has him erasing the teenage son he has sharply failed to parent in favour of a six-year-old version of the boy—will contribute to his (seemingly) growing disenchantment with the rehearsals and their potential to connect him to anything, Angela constitutes a fascinating wrench in the works from the moment she appears. 

Like most of the other individuals on the show, Angela resists reductive categorization, with her competent and often warm devotion to her fake child interlaced with her confused biblical readings, odd affect, and certainty that there are satanic conspiracies all around. (As an aside, it’s worth wondering whether the default criticism that Fielder’s shows mock players like Angela reflects something else instead, which is an assumption that showing behaviour that doesn’t conform to media-approved norms must be equivalent to mocking it; that is, such presumptions perhaps reveal more about the anemia of our spectrum of responses to those odd folk who populate reality—ourselves included—than it does about Fielder’s treatment of them.) And yet, almost uniquely, Angela holds her ground with Nathan, refusing his (reasonable) child-rearing requests and his (less reasonable) erratic changes in plan while regularly calling out Fielder as a liar and manipulator. An early scene of her praying, in which we hear her conspire with God to show Nathan that, despite what they may believe, they are not the ones in control, cannily frames Angela as something like the real foil to Nathan’s plans for world domination—a framing played out especially in the fifth episode, “Apocalypto,” where Nathan is himself reframed as subject entirely to the influence of a series of women in his life, thereby deflating his claims to omnipotence. 

Here, as throughout the show, when Nathan can’t get what he wants from a situation, he retreats into a fabricated version of that scenario populated by actors. As The Rehearsal unfolds, the audience has to pay increased attention to catch when we’re seeing Nathan interact with Angela in the actual (fake) house, and when we’re seeing him interact with Angela’s lookalike performer, drawn from the Fielder Method acting class, in a fake (fake) house, the seamless substitutions just one of the many impressive feats of The Rehearsal’s remarkable editors. Often, these substituted actors make eloquent speeches, perfectly articulating “their” feelings as they confront Nathan (the show is careful to emphasize that, in projecting a world, you are just as likely to create a world that hates you as you are to create one that welcomes you). In the pilot episode, for example, an actor (K. Todd Freeman) playing the episode’s primary rehearser—a high-school teacher named Kor Skeete—suddenly appears in a scene in the place of Kor and reams Nathan out for his manipulation and abuse of Kor’s trust. This kind of articulate, dramatic response rebounds against the audience’s knowledge of Kor, an individual who would be entirely unlikely to give such a detailed and emotive speech, or, indeed, to initiate any conflict whatsoever. In other words, as critics wonder why Fielder doesn’t simply ask The Rehearsal’s participants how they feel about their involvement with the show, Fielder responds with a regular reminder that asking for something “deeper” than the participants’ face-value reactions would only ever replicate the kinds of manipulations and fabrications structuring reality TV, with its scenes directed by producers and confessional booths filled with individuals reading their own unconscious reality TV scripts. 

If The Rehearsal eschews such fictions of direct, omniscient access to the interiority of others, leaving its audience members to read for the “internal” in the same way they must in daily life (though with the added benefit of the show’s externalizing psychodramas), it would neither be right to imply that the show settles on the notion that all hope for authenticity and connection is doomed. If Angela’s refusals often force a confrontation with a reality beyond Nathan’s head, his eventual relationship with Remy—one of the six-year-old actors playing his son—takes this reckoning to its furthest point. In The Rehearsal’s final episode, it’s revealed that the fatherless Remy has bonded to Fielder during filming, and that he’s struggling to let go of his “Pretend Daddy,” as the episode is titled. Seemingly concerned, Nathan does what he can to help the child, but then disappears yet again into various re-enactments of his time with Remy, hoping to find where he went wrong. When this doesn’t alleviate Nathan’s sense of guilt, something new irrupts: he begins to play Remy’s mother in scenarios where no recorded event provides a script, looking after “Remy”—now played by a wizened, professional nine-year-old—in the time leading up to the show’s filming. 

These sequences culminate The Rehearsal’s tying of the broader crises of the contemporary moment to the broken self, presenting in its final moments a genuinely affecting scene of Nathan, now vulnerable and compassionate, doing his best to comfort his weeping son. That these scenes are so successful—Fielder’s performance is remarkable—would seem to have the show claiming that something like healing is at work; that Nathan has changed, and the world has opened itself to him in turn (opaque confessions from Nathan about being Remy’s dad and not his mom aside). But then, one remembers that this scene is as artificial and insulated as anything else in the show, leading to the question: is this The Rehearsal (or Nathan) accepting the hurt at the heart of human limitation, or is this yet another cynical reminder that all is artifice, and that the production of genuine feeling here is just that—a product made for an audience, eager to buy in? With this high-wire act of unbalancing sustained to its final moments, the show’s final episode leaves you wondering not (or not only) what is real in The Rehearsal, but why you so badly need to know. Rennebohm Kate