Season one of The Rehearsal ended this weekend with a finale that saw creator Nathan Fielder grappling with the emotional implications of his grand, expensive, reality-bending experiment. It was a quieter ending than some fans were expecting and left plenty of questions about what, exactly, a season two will look like. (HBO announced the show’s renewal ahead of Friday’s episode.)
But those jonesing for more boundary-pushing, cringe-inducing, or just plain trippy viewing experiences don’t have to wait for Fielder’s next rehearsal to get a hit. We’ve rounded up our favorite things to watch that match The Rehearsal’s general vibe. It’s a dense show, so what lands with you might be completely different from what lands with someone else. (Just look at Twitter reactions to any given episode.) To that end, we’ve structured these as a choose your own adventure, so you can customize your experience based on what theme from The Rehearsal resonates with you most. Or just run through them all like you’re digging for Grandpa’s gold. This is your experience after all.
… the divide between fiction and nonfiction is an illusion.
Abbas Kiarostami films
In The Rehearsal, Fielder uses his camera as a mirror and a portal. The entire concept of The Rehearsal is meant to be a revelatory device for its participants. If only Kor could practice his apology or Angela could practice raising a child, they would determine how to do the right thing and reveal their true feelings in the process. But The Rehearsal is using the structure of reality TV and the inherently performative nature of being recorded to reveal something about its participants — Kor, Angela, and even Nathan — that they were perhaps unaware was part of them all along. What is the line between authenticity and artifice, and how does the camera lens amplify or distort it? Fielder is low-key obsessed with that question, and if you are, too, then the filmography of Abbas Kiarostami is what you should dive into next.
In his 1990 docufiction film Close-Up and his Koker Trilogy of films — comprising Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Life, and Nothing More … (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994) — Kiarostami experimented with characters playing versions of themselves, then playing other characters with the same names; the line between “real people” and “actors” often dissolved. He revealed the film crew at the end of certain films as a fourth-wall-breaking twist or integrated them from the onset in others to emphasize that what we were watching was a reconstruction. There is a certain level of disbelief that you have to suspend when you’re watching any fictional movies or TV shows, and through these four films, Kiarostami asks why: Why do we divide nonfiction and fiction into different categories when they could teach us the same things about the fragility and vulnerability of life? What do form and function have to do with each other? Those are considerations I think Fielder is grappling with, too, and diving into their treatment by Kiarostami gives valuable artistic context for The Rehearsal. —Roxana Hadadi
… the meta-narratives represent a doomed attempt at authenticity that is impossible to re-create.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
With the possible exception of Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, there’s no work of art or entertainment that’s closer to The Rehearsal in spirit than the 2008 movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s about a theater director named Caden Cotard played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Caden’s health is failing, and his wife has left him (taking their child with her), but after slogging along in search of artistic greatness, he’s chosen as the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. It’s no HBO money, but it’s enough for Caden to pursue his passion — to put his “real self into something,” which involves building a life-size replica of parts of Manhattan in a warehouse and populating it with actors to play everyday people in pursuit of some impossible type of authenticity.
Synecdoche, New York is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, writer of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a man with a Fielder-esque interest in meta-mindfuckery, and the already slippery reality of the film quickly becomes impossible to grasp. Time slips by, Caden marries one of his cast members in what feels like an attempt to retroactively fix his past failed relationship, and eventually casts someone in the role of himself, his life becoming his art as much as his art is his life. Synecdoche, New York ultimately ends up a kind of flip side to The Rehearsal — where instead of artifice being used in a doomed attempt to have better control over the real world, more and more of the real world is included in a doomed attempt to make art that’s free of artifice. —Alison Willmore
… playacting emotions can be a legitimate way to process them.
Joshua Oppenheimer and Robert Greene documentaries
The Rehearsal reminded me a lot of two documentarians: Joshua Oppenheimer and Robert Greene. Aspects of drama therapy — which is what Fielder is essentially doing on the show — can be found in both Oppenheimer’s and Greene’s works, where real or imagined moments are re-created and staged for the screen as means of exploring some really heavy shit.
In Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a man who participated in the Indonesian mass-killing campaign of the mid-’60s was convinced to be part of a subjective re-creation of the genocide, where he’s ultimately confronted with the gravity of his actions. In Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, the camera follows an actress as she prepares for a fictitious film role in which she plays a real-life newscaster who died by suicide on live television in the ’70s. Meanwhile, in Greene’s Procession, victims of a church sex-abuse scandal are given the opportunity to process their trauma through fictionalized dramatizations of their experiences. Across all instances, theatrical facsimile is used as a way to unlock new emotion and perspective: an act of processing by way of playacting.
Sure, call The Rehearsal a comedic production, anti-comedy, or whatever. But it’s very clearly the work of a person working through some big interior questions and relying on the perspective-switching mechanic of dramatic re-creation as a method of psychological discovery. —Nicholas Quah
… the narrative serves the comedy, not the other way around.
John Wilson’s short films
If you watched The Rehearsal, chances are you’ve already seen HBO’s How To With John Wilson, the gentler, less masterminded docu-comedy on which Fielder works as a producer. If so, you’ve probably noticed the subtle moments when The Rehearsal feels inspired by the tone and format of How To — none more glaring than the famous green-pepper scene, when Fielder uses crafty voice-over narration to convey an idea about a bite-size piece of footage that both gets laughs and progresses the show’s narrative.
What you may not have seen, though, are the short films John Wilson made prior to How To, which initially sparked Fielder’s interest in collaborating with Wilson and functioned as a proof of concept for Wilson’s HBO show. One in particular, How to Act in Reality TV, feels especially influential to The Rehearsal. It focuses on an experimental acting class dabbling in radical methods of teaching not unlike the Fielder Method. But more than that, it is a reality program that deconstructs the making of reality shows, a theme The Rehearsal plays with endlessly across its six episodes. Watching the teacher of the class, it’s impossible not to wonder, How real is this? How much is he playing a persona and putting his own teachings to use? Then you quickly decide these questions of authenticity are tangential to the point and strap in for the ride. —Hershal Pandya
… it’s very easy to start believing in the fiction you’ve created.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
Sure, you might be dimly aware of this show primarily because it launched Olivia Rodrigo’s career, but I promise that the Disney+ series is actually very much about performance. The premise of the first season is that a bunch of high-school kids at the school where they filmed High School Musical are putting on their own production of High School Musical: The Musical and, thus, trying to live up to the archetypes of the roles in the show they’re playing while figuring out who they are on their own. If The Rehearsal got you thinking about how playing a part might make you believe the reality of the fiction you’re in, there’s a lot of that here — plus a lot of nerdy theater-kid jokes. In the third season, they’re off at camp filming a documentary about themselves testing out a high-school adaptation of Frozen with High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu as a vapid version of himself running the filming — the Nathan Fielder of theater camp if you will. —Jackson McHenry
… this whole thing seems kinda unethical?
When watching The Rehearsal (and even more so when diving into The Rehearsal discourse online), a few questions keep bubbling up: Is this actually cruel? Is he using the apparatus of film and TV to work stuff out that would be better put in the hands of a therapist? Are the people in it unstable? The show is never going to fully answer these questions, as half of the gag is the tension they create. But if you want something that answers, “Yes,” to all three, watch Takashi Miike’s Audition. In this deeply unsettling and gross horror movie, a widower stages a fake casting sesh for a movie that doesn’t exist in order to find a replacement wife. Not to spoil the whole thing for you, but it does not work out for him. If Robbin left you feeling weird, Audition is there to remind you things could be so much weirder. —Bethy Squires
… Nathan Fielder is a weird little guy.
Obviously, if you loved The Rehearsal, you’re probably at least familiar with Fielder’s first show, Nathan for You. But if you haven’t seen much of the Comedy Central series (beyond “Dumb Starbucks”), I would suggest going straight to the series finale, a feature-length episode called “Finding Frances.” Rather than helping a struggling business, Nathan decides to help a 78-year-old man named Bill Heath, who appeared on the show as a Bill Gates impersonator, to track down Frances, the lost love of his life. What starts as a fairly straightforward premise quickly becomes a fascinating character study — both of this man, who is naturally a more complicated person than “78-year-old Bill Gates impersonator,” and of Nathan as you start to wonder why he’s trying so hard.
You can see the germ of so many elements from The Rehearsal in Nathan for You, but they’re explored to their fullest extent in “Finding Frances.” Nathan explicitly has Bill rehearse his reunion with Frances, letting him practice every possible scenario. But the most interesting part of the episode is how Nathan involves himself in the process. Without giving too much away, we see Nathan become invested in a fake relationship, a clear precursor to the Rehearsal finale. It’s nearly as hard to watch as the conversations with Remy, making it absolutely clear that Nathan Fielder (or at least the character of Nathan Fielder) is more fucked up than anyone he’s trying to help. —Emily Palmer Heller