What is Nathan Fielder Up To In ‘The Rehearsal’?

‘Nathan for You’ creator’s bigger ambitions (and HBO-sized budget) pay off

At the very beginning of his new HBO Max six-episode series The Rehearsal, creator Nathan Fielder says in monotone voiceover: “I have been told that my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that.”

Anyone familiar with his last show, the four-season run of Nathan For You on Comedy Central, knows that’s only part of the story. Fielder’s on-screen persona is a try-hard sad sack, an earnest and lonely person who goes to extremes to develop complex solutions for simple human problems. Along the way, he is unsuccessful (onscreen, at least) at developing meaningful friendships or romances. On Nathan for You, Fielder’s neediness contrasted comedically with the point of the show: to help small-business owners find success with unorthodox ideas, such as convincing a coffee shop to change its name to Dumb Starbucks to skirt getting sued by operating as a parody act.

Nathan Fielder’s deadpan devotion is at the center of HBO Max’s ‘The Rehearsal.’

The Rehearsal, by contrast, forges new territory: Fielder helps real people stage elaborate simulations of things they are afraid to deal with until they feel prepared to tackle the challenge. That those challenges might range from the challenge of revealing a lie to a friend in the pilot episode, to helping a woman experience 18 years of parenthood in a couple of months doesn’t deter Fielder. Like the overly determined and fictional life-experience reviewer played by Andy Daly in Comedy Central’s Review, Fielder unhealthily commits to the show he refers to as a “Groundbreaking project,” or at least he does a great job portraying himself as overly committed.

More than comedy

And that’s where The Rehearsal gets very difficult to figure out. Are we watching a comedy in which the inscrutable Fielder has set up ridiculous obstacles and logistical nightmares for himself to draw comedic juice? Or is there something deeper going on, a brutal self-examination of Fielder’s own work and its effect on those around him, something like the finale of Nathan For You, the sad and epic Finding Frances?

Judging from the first two episodes, both things happen at the same time. The humor in the show largely comes from the ridiculous lengths and expense the show goes to in order to create elaborate simulations for people who may not deserve all the fuss. In the first episode, Fielder has an exact replica of a Williamsburg bar built so that a man can practice revealing that he never got a master’s degree.

That serves as a prologue to an ongoing story about a woman who wants to know if she’d be a good mother, but currently isn’t dating anyone and doesn’t want to be a single mom. Fielder puts up the woman in an expensive-looking Oregon farm home, helps her arrange dates with potential co-parents, and hires an army of child actors at various ages and nighttime robot babies so that she can experience fake parenthood as the perfect time, location and partner align. (Spoiler to future parents: That never happens.)

Fielder at the core

The conceit of the show is that Fielder increasingly becomes part of these experiments, either as the target of anger for his manipulation and lies, or more deeply as an active participant. Comparisons to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York fit well as the levels of what’s fake, what’s real, and what’s supposed to be funny get fuzzier and fuzzier.

At the center of it all is Fielder himself, who has helped usher in an era of melancholy, awkward examinations of human behavior alongside shows such as How To With John Wilson (which Fielder produces) and the recently canceled Joe Pera Talks With You. Fielder’s inscrutability on- and off-screen makes it hard to determine exactly what angle he’s going for here. He’s the rare New York Magazine profile subject whom you feel you know less about after reading a lengthy piece about him.

What’s clear so far is that the show so far benefits greatly from HBO’s deep pockets, Fielder’s blankness as a deadpan ringleader, and a cast of characters who, like many Americans, seem unable to deal with what’s right in front of them and lack the self-awareness that would allow them to handle adult responsibilities without a camera crew and a pre-written flow chart to navigate tough conversations.

Laugh — or cringe?

The Rehearsal is a damning reality-drama about Fielder’s obsession with human behavior and the manipulative lengths he’ll go to control and document it. Or, it’s a comedy about an obsessive TV creator dealing with the futile desires of controlling, unfulfilled people, himself included. It’s probably both.

If that sounds like your jam, you will love The Rehearsal, which already feels deeper, weirder, more ambitious and more dangerous, emotionally speaking, than anything Nathan For You got away with. Is it really funny, though? Maybe it will be funny someday, like a shared trauma that becomes hilarious over time. As The Rehearsal unspools every Friday night, Fielder seems to be going for more than just laughs.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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