emergency discussion

The Final Moments of The Rehearsal Premiere Test Reality’s Limits

K. Todd Freeman in The Rehearsal. Give him an Emmy! Photo: HBO

Occasionally, it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, critics Roxana Hadadi and Kathryn VanArendonk dive deep into the end of the first episode of Nathan Fielder’s new show, The Rehearsal.

In the last minute of the premiere episode of HBO’s The Rehearsal, the show’s creator and bona fide oddball Nathan Fielder has a closing conversation with Kor, the man who is the first episode’s primary subject. It is a striking, strange minute of television, toggling back and forth between playacting and seeming reality in ways that are subtle and easy to miss, especially in the wash of overwhelming cringey emotion that The Rehearsal is so good at creating. But the way you interpret that last minute can completely change the broader experience of the show.

Kor and Nathan have spent the entire episode — what appears to be weeks of preparation — rehearsing for a conversation Kor’s been delaying for years. After lying to his Brooklyn bar-trivia teammates about his educational background, Kor wants to come clean to his trivia friend Tricia, and he’s terrified she’ll react with fury and a sense of betrayal. While they practice that conversation, though, Nathan realizes he needs to give Kor the trivia answers so he can focus on talking with his friend. But Kor is adamant that he cannot cheat at the game. So in one of the funniest, most openly goofy sequences of the series, Nathan and Kor walk around the city and encounter a variety of scenes meant to seed the answers in Kor’s mind. An actor playing a pedestrian spills a drink and exclaims, “Ooh, shit! It’s all over my DKNY pants. Donna Karan New York. DKNY.” A faux-police officer standing at a crime scene mournfully says that days like this make him “curse the Chinese for inventing gunpowder.”

At the very end of the episode, the conversation with Tricia has gone amazingly well, and Nathan appears to come clean to Kor about helping him cheat at this trivia game. But it’s not Kor whom Nathan comes clean to. It’s an actor Nathan has hired to stand in for him. Then the camera cuts back to the real person. How much did Nathan actually tell the real Kor? What is the purpose of this final rehearsal? What does it mean if you don’t even notice it?

Vulture TV critics Kathryn VanArendonk and Roxana Hadadi have gone through the Fielder looking glass and convened an emergency discussion.

Kathryn VanArendonk: Okay, I confess it: I didn’t realize it wasn’t Kor! I was so shocked by the whole episode and so absolutely willing to believe that someone would be deeply upset when confronted with Nathan Fielder’s methods that, on first viewing, my brain did not even register that it was the actor rather than the real man. Did you realize what was happening the first time you watched?

Roxana Hadadi: I did realize it, but it required a pause, a rewind, and a double take to ensure that I had seen what I thought I’d seen. So much of The Rehearsal demands your attention in that uniquely Fielder way, like he’s pressing on a bruise and you want to pull away but also he’s telling you a story at the same time that is fascinating enough that you don’t actually decide to disengage. Fielder did this first in Nathan for You — essentially daring us to see how much discomfort we could take in the name of television, like a true pop-culture masochist — and The Rehearsal ratchets that upward: How quickly will you accept this premise that he’s going to put out an ad for someone who wants to be on TV, then incrementally take over elements of this person’s life and dictate not only what they say and do but how we as an audience will perceive them? Against my best efforts of not getting swept into The Rehearsal, because Nathan for You often made me feel like I wanted to crawl under my bed and never come back out, this new series hooked me as soon as Kor and Nathan were walking around the city, learning about the French Revolution. I was trying to counteract my own pervading sense of discomfort while watching The Rehearsal by paying very close attention to The Rehearsal, as if focusing more intently would make my cringing worthwhile.

That led me to realize that the person who receives Nathan’s confession about rigging the trivia game was not Kor but the actor K. Todd Freeman (of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and he was Mr. Trick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer!), who is standing in for Kor. Freeman’s acting here is amazing: His anger seems so genuine! He mimics Kor’s tone and pacing! He keeps looking back at Nathan like he’s furious at how Nathan has “tainted” his admission about not having a master’s degree and then looking away like he can’t even believe what he’s done! It’s so harrowing and so enraging, and then I realized, But is this what Nathan told him to say in response to Nathan’s apology? Was this seemingly genuine moment also rehearsed, and if so, what about any of this is actually “real”? And then my brain sort of collapsed in on itself like I was a Westworld host or something. There are too many layers to this! Am I overthinking it?

KVA: Overthinking? Overthinking a Nathan Fielder show? Surely not!

I had the opposite experience watching this first episode: I was watching with friends, none of whom had any experience with Nathan Fielder’s work. So I spent much of the episode watching their reactions as much as I watched the screen, trying to figure out how they felt about it. But as a result, I was not watching closely enough during that final minute, and I completely missed that it was K. Todd Freeman rather than Kor. As you pointed out, his performance is so good that it’s a remarkably easy mistake to make. I think there’s also something about the tone of the show, and the arc of Kor’s particular experience, that makes it a mistake you want to make — I was aching for someone to blow up at Nathan. Even if it’s in the context of getting angry about something as comparatively slight as cheating at trivia for the sake of this larger emotional goal, I was relieved to have some moment when Kor pushed back at Nathan’s methods. It made so much sense that there’d finally be … maybe not a reckoning, but at least an acknowledgement of Kor’s imagined discomfort.

Instead, what we get is one more level of Nathan’s rehearsing. It’s such a weird, arresting moment, and it feels so representative of Nathan’s overall project.

RH: You wrote a lot about the series’ reality versus “reality” divide in your review, which I really appreciated reading after watching this first episode because The Rehearsal is so purposefully fake that I do think parts of it are real, but the parts that are real are so cutting that I wanted a layer of artifice upon them to help myself absorb the rawness. Who hasn’t carried guilt over something seemingly innocuous? Who hasn’t worried that other people won’t like the “true” them? There are some very central things that Kor is experiencing that I can empathize with and that I think appeal to Nathan too. The complicating part of all this is whether Nathan genuinely cares about people, and this is his weird way of helping them, or if he knows that audiences respond to that seeming generosity, and he’s manipulating all of us in a dollhouse of his own making. Maybe it’s a little bit of both because I don’t think it’s neither.

That’s why the mindfuckery of this final 30 seconds is so effective: Nathan is theoretically providing us what we would expect to see. He’s set up in the preceding minutes that Kor cares about the rules and that Nathan actively made a choice that compromised that. Kor did go through with his admission, and Tricia accepted it, so you want Nathan to take his own advice and be honest. But what does it mean that he’s only being honest to who the credits identify as “Fake Kor”? Does that make Nathan’s regret any less genuine? I think that’s an overarching question here, as is the follow-up: Did Nathan actually tell Kor this, too, but we don’t see it?

It’s hard to say because this sequence is so masterfully edited by Adam Locke-Norton (who also worked on Nathan for You and the Fielder-produced How to With John Wilson) and because it speaks to the series’ ongoing consideration of performativity. Fake Kor worries “that I’m a fake” when he’s rejecting Nathan’s apology, and Nathan seems to be blinking back tears, but then Real Kor is there and Nathan is still teary, and then “Pure Imagination” pipes in. Is the imagination here our own, and how we want to be assuaged? Or is the imagination Nathan’s own? If you’re in a fake place doing things that are fake, are you yourself fake? I just don’t know! And I respect so much that we can’t know because Nathan is such an observer of human behavior and such a mischievous tinkerer with it that he basically anticipates all our reactions, then gives us a conclusion that both feeds into and rejects all of them. But I also wonder, Is this cruel? Are Nathan detractors, who think he traipses into people’s fantasies about themselves and strip-mines them for content, right?

KVA: I think it’s impossible to watch either Nathan for You or The Rehearsal and not come away with deep reservations about what he asks of people, imposes on people, manipulates people into doing without their full understanding, or what he edits people into the appearance of having done after the fact. I do think The Rehearsal is far more canny about presenting that reservation as an open question — and one that the show itself is concerned about. But openly asking us to consider whether the show is monstrous without then changing the fundamental premise of the show is really just another level of mindfuckery! By including that moment when someone berates him, Nathan gives us an emotional pressure release: See! Someone said it! This whole thing messes with people! And yet including it there at the end is its own performative dodge. It’s a straw-man criticism, inserted there so that it feels like the series is admonishing its creator … while still allowing him to have the final say.

In an episode full of discomfiting moments, that final minute is perhaps the most unnerving and destabilizing. It’s also, as you say, so, so well done. Aside from the editing and performance of it, I was completely taken with it as a twist of the most “Comedy with a capital-C” scenes in the episode, that sequence when Kor and Nathan walk around the city. It is the section of the first episode that feels most patently false. Kor actually believing that the police officer bemoaning the Chinese invention of gunpowder while also describing a horrendous murder-hostage situation is so implausible — it’s comforting because you think he must be in on the joke. It’s so impressive, and so upsetting, to have that same fun, light section be the one that drives this crushing ending.

RH: Those 30 seconds intentionally blow up the binary that Nathan had built in this episode: the divide between Real Kor showing Nathan around his apartment and Fake Kor sitting in the mapped recreation, or the schism that exists between Real Tricia as she meets with Fake Tricia — played by Gigi Burgdorf, so wonderfully uncanny in her mimicry — to discuss bird-watching. As viewers, we accepted Nathan’s presentation of “Here is the original, and here is the copy,” and we consumed the episode on those terms. Surely everything Real Kor and Real Tricia did was unscripted. Surely everything Fake Kor and Fake Tricia did was preconceived. But this final sequence served as an emphasis that nothing you see on television is unfiltered or uncut — there is always a puppet master or a man behind the curtain or a guy running a chocolate sweatshop involved. Whatever “reality” you see on TV is still populated by people responding to a set pattern of social cues, and we as audiences are building our own version of the truth via what we see there.

It reminds me a lot of the Nathan for You episode “Smokers Allowed,” in which Nathan took over a bar and set it up as an avante-garde theater experience so that smoking could occur within the premises despite laws forbidding it indoors. The “play” was just a recreation of what happened at the bar one specific night, and yet audiences were prepared to try and glean meaning from it. That’s what we’re all looking for — some kind of connection in an increasingly stratified world — and I think Nathan uses that to his advantage and for our (complicated) entertainment. Am I getting too big in thinking about this? Probably! But the winking quality of that final minute will certainly keep me watching The Rehearsal. Kathryn, you watched with other people. What was their reaction?

KVA: Like a perfect focus group, some of them were horrified and wanted nothing more to do with the show, and some immediately decided they needed to see the whole season. You and I both watch a great deal of television and are sadly all too familiar with TV that makes you feel nothing. We’re also pretty familiar with the question of what can actually cut through the noise of peak TV. Compared with the rest of TV, The Rehearsal, for better or for worse (or both! Reject binaries!) looks like a laser, slicing through everything.

RH: It’s really all orange juice, no pulp.

The End of The Rehearsal Premiere Tests Reality’s Limits