comedy review

Nathan Fielder’s Dazzling, Horrifying Trial Run of Reality

Fielder on The Rehearsal. Photo: Allyson Riggs/Warner Media

Nathan Fielder messes with people. It was true for his Comedy Central series Nathan for You, and it’s still true in his new HBO series, The Rehearsal. He’s fascinated by people, drawn to and perplexed by them, and he uses the inherent allowances of TV to conduct social experiments. But in order to achieve his ends, Fielder almost inevitably deceives his subjects. He misleads them, makes them uncomfortable, and tries to goad them into saying or doing things they might not want to. The combination of Fielder’s focus on regular people and his willingness to screw with them means The Rehearsal will not be universally liked, but it will nevertheless elicit two universal responses: No one will feel comfortable, and everyone will wonder how much of it is real.

In Nathan for You, Fielder offered solutions (always strange, often damaging) to help real, struggling companies. In The Rehearsal, he returns to that mixture of artifice and substance by finding people who want to rehearse some element of their lives — difficult conversations they’ve been putting off, major life changes they’re uncertain about adopting. In the first episode, Fielder works with a man who wants to tell a friend on his bar-trivia team he’s spent years lying to her about his educational background. Fielder stages a mind-bogglingly detailed recreation of all the ways this interaction could go. He gets the production team to build a perfect duplicate of the bar so Fielder and his rehearsal team can understand every possible dynamic of the space. They practice and practice, over and over again, until the man finds a conversational strategy he’s comfortable with. They game out strategies for minor interruptions and emotional detours. They plan where to sit, what drinks to order. Most incredibly, Fielder hires an actress to play the man’s friend, then sends that actress off to meet the friend so that when she returns, she can be the best possible match for this person inside Fielder’s baroque alternate universe.

It is a stunning display of scale. The Rehearsal is impressive simply from a production standpoint: There is a shock in seeing someone’s entire world rebuilt in perfect detail on a soundstage solely so they can playact one short conversation. Every time the premise of a rehearsal seems as if it should hit a dead end, Fielder finds a way to open some new avenue of verisimilitude and experimentation, like a Willy Wonka of social anxieties with endless resources and zero common sense. That scale is spectacular, and it’s also functional. It is meant to disorient the viewer, and it works. The show is off-putting in the way an uncannily sharp Imax screen can feel overwhelming or how the “real but not” feeling of déjà vu can make you dizzy. It elicits that sinking feeling of the moment when you’re sure you recognize someone but can’t figure out from where.

That disorientation is more than a little horrifying. It’s clearest in later episodes, when Fielder runs a rehearsal with a woman named Angela who wants to see what it’d be like to have children. But it’s obvious even from that first, comparatively benign episode with the bar-trivia disclosure. Fielder, as he says himself at one point in the show, holds much more power than any of the participants. Yes, they’ve consented to have their lives turned upside down, consented to be portrayed on camera, agreed to play along with scenarios designed to manipulate them. But can they really say no? They can control their own behavior, but they have no say in how that behavior is eventually edited. Even if they think they’re playing along — as Fielder’s bar-trivia man does — the process seems destined to betray them. Fielder toys with the idea that this man will end up shaken and disgusted when he realizes Fielder has prodded him toward a certain outcome, but The Rehearsal never lets us see how he truly feels after that revelation. In another rehearsal, the participant simply leaves, apparently opting out of the process. But The Rehearsal uses all his earlier footage anyhow.

The rehearsals are presented as gifts for their participants, an otherwise unimaginable opportunity to have a trial run of reality. But they are always gifts for Fielder, first and foremost. He is a puppet master whose seeming guilelessness invites people to tie up their own strings. By episode four, when Fielder turns the whole thing into an unending spiral of self-consciousness, The Rehearsal starts to look like a stunning display of narcissism more than anything else. It is solipsism disguised as its opposite. How could that not be repellent?

But there is at least one level on which The Rehearsal is unquestionably commenting on something beyond the strange recesses of Fielder’s mind. Everything Fielder does is an unadorned version of how all reality TV works. We’re uncomfortable because we can see the mechanics of it, but nothing is actually different. People consent to play along with a production, often built as a “social experiment” for their possible gain. Participants of Love Is Blind don’t know how they’ll be edited. Real Housewives give their consent, but how much power do they have to say no once their lives are warped by the franchise? People on The Circle sign up knowing they’ll be manipulated. Does that make the manipulation okay?

And once you strip it all down, isn’t The Rehearsal doing what all television does? Some of its most discomfiting elements involve that rehearsal for Angela, who wants to rehearse motherhood. Child actors, including infants and toddlers, become part of Fielder’s process, answering to different names and pretending Angela is their real parent. It’s nightmarish; you wonder if it damages them; it’s exactly what any child actor does for a more conventional television show. Sets built to look like a real home, lines prepared in advance, participation without a final say into what shows up onscreen — it’s not that different from a standard TV production, but it’s so much more unnerving when Fielder lets us see how it all works.

The Rehearsal lays bare the assumptions and expectations of social conventions, forcing its participants to really probe what they thought they wanted, the easy lies they’ve been telling themselves. The cost is in emotional distress, and that cost is high. But there’s a moment when Fielder stares at a green pepper, a prop that’s supposed to have been freshly picked from the garden as part of the rehearsal for Angela’s agrarian fantasy life. Someone left a grocery-store sticker on the pepper, and while Angela chats happily in the background, Fielder keeps staring at this small, glaring symbol of the schism between rehearsal and reality. He rotates it, hiding the sticker from view. The pepper was not “real,” but the shift between reality and rehearsal is so remarkably small.

Fielder’s participants are ostensibly real people with real problems. The degree to which that’s true — how fully any of them know what they’ve signed up for, how much any of them are playing along, the way any of these interactions have been edited to highlight certain emotional reactions — is impossible to say. Most important, it feels true. It is true enough that as the rehearsals play out, as more and more twists and M.C. Escher–esque turns are introduced into the rehearsal process, your body registers them as true and responds accordingly. You cannot help but want to cringe because it’s so byzantine and so simultaneously emotionally naked. Like it or not, that sensation of bodily distress is the feeling of Fielder’s rehearsals succeeding. You start longing for the disconnective fantasy of television without all of its insides on display, social interactions where everyone just plays along with their familiar, superficial roles. It gives you the giddy, endless-falling sensation of never quite knowing where the ground should be, like vertigo but for the experience of being a person in the world.

Nathan Fielder’s Dazzling, Horrifying Trial Run of Reality