'The Rehearsal:' An Existential Comedian's Superimposed Reality
I don’t think that television has ever looked like this before.
The Rehearsal is a comedic documentary-reality hybrid borne of Canada’s best worst businessman, Nathan Fielder. It’s been five long years since Nathan Fielder’s last project, the brilliant Nathan For You, concluded with a Bill Gates impersonator traversing the continent in search of long-lost love, but Fielder has not missed a single step. The internet’s soberest heartthrob is a little older, wiser, and grayer, but it’s still the same old trickster at the top of his game.
The first episode of The Rehearsal seemed to promise an episodic structure not dissimilar to NFY, with Fielder journeying from soul to soul peddling inane advice to marginally improve their life. But rather than a fundamentally unserious romp from business to business, his new show projected to be different, more ponderous, promising strangers the opportunity to rehearse for particular anxiety-inducing upcoming situations in their lives. For our initial victim of honor, Kor, Nathan proves the value of an HBO budget, constructing a perfect life-size replica of the subject’s favorite trivia bar, hiding several actors in real-life scenarios to plant trivia information, and manipulating all that he could – and some that he shouldn’t have been able to – behind the scenes.
That first episode of The Rehearsal operates by its lonesome, and it’s frankly a mini-masterpiece. What Fielder accomplishes with the story of Kor is remarkable. He’s always been skilled at reproducing the authentic warts-and-all nuance of the people on the show, but only once before – the aforementioned kooky Gates-alike – has he made an effort to get inside their heads. To do so in 45 minutes with a mostly ordinary trivia buff, with whom he deftly exchanges the role of straight man, is prodigious. After numerous rehearsals with a stand-in for his friend, to whom he wants to confess his lack of Master’s degree, Kor freezes in the moment. He looks desperately at the hidden camera, as if longing for the artificiality to return and rescue him. And then he tells her, and it’s no big deal. We feel the terror of an honest man’s big lie, the apprehension of the moment, and the catharsis of a simple resolution. It’s glorious.
But when the second episode rolls around, it becomes clear that this show can be simply partitioned in twain. Sometime before the second episode was to be filmed, COVID-19 arrived, likely scattering many ambitions for the show into the wind. And yet, the latter half proves even more ingenious.
After a great little cold open that sees Fielder covertly swap one baby for another while the child’s mother is out of the room, we’re introduced to Angela. Angela wants to experience motherhood, or the best simulation on the market, before deciding whether she wants it for real. Enter Adam, played by a rotating cast of children aged in three-year chunks from 0 to 18. Angela also becomes the unexpected costar of the next five episodes.
Nathan tries to find an adequate co-parent in order to deliver her the most authentic experience possible, but uber-Christian Angela only seems to like Robbin, whose religious zeal rivals only his fascination for the ever-occurring angel number. Eventually, he’s seemingly scared off by the trials of a sensitive robo-baby and the possibility of losing a precious night’s sleep, so Nathan steps in and offers himself as a possible co-parent.
Robbin, beyond regularly being unintentionally hilarious, is a perfect specimen for Fielder. He’s conceited, bizarre, and more than willing to reveal his whole self on camera. He’s the kind of guy who, as his roommate points out, “thinks so much more about numbers than… like, the real-life experiences of, like, you know.” He takes a massive hit of his bong and still offers to drive his license plate-less car. Oh, and he loves to mention that he crashed his Scion TC going 100 mph and landed upright. All of this stuff is super specific and bizarre, and yet most people who watch him will still find themselves thinking, “yeah, I know half a dozen guys like this.”
To provide an abridged summary from that point in the show, Nathan’s co-parenting splits time with his conducting of other rehearsals. First is Patrick, whom he successfully prods to fraternal breakthrough after manufacturing an additional layer of gold-digging rehearsal. Next, he travels to LA to check in on the newest class of actors in training under The Fielder Method, Nathan’s own technique for developing actors that need to carefully mimic real-life targets. Upon returning, he finds his fake son has grown from 6 to 15, and feels guilty. After things go poorly between Adam and him, Nathan resets him to six years old and does his best to be more present, making religion a sticking point with Angela and proudly teaching his fake son about Judaism.
In the finale, though, Fielder discovers that one of the six-year-old child actors, Remy, has actually become attached to Nathan, and it feels like the back half of the show clicks into place. Childless Angela and Nathan are able to meaningfully but safely engage with the fantasy of parenthood, but fatherless Remy lacks the ability to do so. It’s understandable that he saw a substitute father in Fielder, especially after his mother explains the way that Remy sees the other kids at school with their dads. Nathan spends the episode doing damage control, makes sure that the kid is okay, and conducts rehearsals on himself to figure out what he could’ve done better, but all in all, the fun is kinda gone.
That the kid’s feelings were a little hurt is understandable, given the shaky ethics of the whole situation. We can blame the mother or Fielder for their role in his confusion, but The Rehearsal is shining a spotlight on the use of child actors as a whole. Are we really to believe that this is the first time that this has ever happened? There’s no way that the average production team will put in the care to right their wrongs the way Fielder did.
Beyond that, the show functions as an excellent commentary on the stupidity of reality television, which is, I’m sure we all know by now, far from reality. After all, you change the outcome by observing it, right? Fielder’s work reminds us time and time again that slapping a camera on someone will make them dance. The authenticity that we get from Kor, or Robbin, or Patrick is always tainted by their understanding that there is a camera documenting their every move.
It’s episode four, The Fielder Method, that most beautifully demonstrates this. At one point, Nathan is having trouble with a student, Thomas, who appears uncomfortable with the stalking aspects of the method. Nathan recreates the day with another set of actors and takes Thomas’s place to imagine how he must feel, and as he sits there, he feels the weight of the cameras. Or at least he pretends to. And then after the class, he signs a form that he doesn’t have time to read. Or at least he pretends to.
That’s the difficulty with the reality of the show. Whatever you’d like to believe – that all of it is real and authentic or artificial and planned – the outcome, for us, the viewers, is the same. We’ll never know how much or how little Nathan is pretending, nor can we anticipate whether Angela is being herself on camera or inventing a more palatable version. Nothing here can be 100% real or fake, and so, in a Schrödinger's cat kind of way, it’s both. All of it is real, and none of it is. There’s something refreshing about a show that admits it’s bullshit on some level. We don’t have to suspend our disbelief. Fielder is comedy’s Kiarostami corollary.
Beyond the show’s fascinating irreality, one very real and uncomfortable focus is the rampant and casual antisemitism that Fielder either experiences or witnesses on camera. One actor’s mother forces him to tell her child that he is Christian and that “Jesus is almighty,” and that Judaism is just some pretend thing. Patrick casually quips about someone being “a Jew about” money, which prompts Nathan to stop and wonder aloud about the ethical ramifications of allowing antisemitism in his rehearsal versus the problem of denying the authenticity of the process if Patrick would speak so in real life. Angela herself cannot seem to tolerate Judaism even after confessing that the two religions share the same basic values.
I’m not Jewish myself, so I can’t speak at length about that aspect of the show or the Jewish experience in America, but it’s clear that Fielder has weathered his share of bigotry. In all honesty, I think that this kind of show, with the interplay between life and television, allows a certain interaction with Judaism that other media disallow. One where Nathan can “escalate the bit” for a moment but still make a point about how even though he hasn’t been to synagogue in years (“because it’s so boring”), it’s a part of him that he would want to share with Adam. Or his real child. I don’t know. I look forward to what those more Jewish than me will write about the show.
But for all its commentary on reality TV, child acting, religion, and television as a medium, The Rehearsal is first and foremost a deconstruction of its creator. Nathan is a private man – the “Personal Life” section of his Wikipedia page is 2 sentences, 25 words total – and he will freely admit that on-camera Nathan is a persona. He’s always performing, except when he’s not. The beauty of the show is that there is no delineation between the real and fake Nathan, just as the line between reality and reality TV is fuzzed. When we see him changing a diaper and simultaneously googling “how do you change a diaper,” there’s an understanding that he is performing, but perhaps performing reality.
What we know of Nathan is what he gives us. He’s awkward and has a tough time connecting with people. He plays this up for the camera. He has cats, and they’re adorable. He’s funny. He was married, and now he’s divorced. He has no kids. Maybe he wants some. He’s Jewish. He’s not super religious, but it seems to be part of his identity. He’s a little bit of a square. He’s a normal guy.
The Rehearsal reframes Nathan For You as more or less germinal – especially a handful of episodes that include “The Web,” “Dumb Starbucks,” “Smokers Allowed,” and the aforementioned “Finding Frances.” Nathan has only been building his brand of comedy in this direction, one where life seeps in through the pores of television’s thin veneer. He’s not debasing like Eric Andre or caricaturing like Sasha Baron Cohen. Nathan wants the punchline to be based in empathy. There’s a little exchange with fake Angela in episode five that I find perfectly summarizes his work:
Fake Angela: “Are you really trying to help me? Or am I the silly part you talk about, huh? Is my life the joke? Do you sit here with your friends at the end of the day laughing at me?”
Nathan: “No, you’re not the joke. Not at all. No one’s the joke! Th- the situations are funny, but interesting too.”
Ultimately, any reasonable review of The Rehearsal is doomed to be abridged. I’m arbitrarily cutting myself off here, even though I want to write more. Novels could be written about this season alone, and I’m barely scratching the surface. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most brilliant deconstructive works that I’ve ever seen and one of 21st-century television’s greatest achievements. Who knows what season two could look like?