Nathan for You and The Rehearsal are not the same show; you don’t need to have seen Nathan Fielder’s former show to understand or appreciate his new one on HBO. But the first episode of The Rehearsal, “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” has enough structural overlap with Fielder’s previous work that the echoes and differences feel significant. For example, every episode of NFY began with a little voice-over that explained the show’s premise. In The Rehearsal, instead, we get a cold open: no context, no instructions, just a man intently watching Jeopardy! on his couch. When Fielder enters the apartment, we see a Nathan many of us already know but a little more natural — still awkward but less stilted, a guy you can imagine talking to without experiencing physical discomfort.
The show introduces us to Kor, a teacher who found his way to the show via a vague Craigslist post. How vague? Fielder shows us a screenshot of the prompt: “TV opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding? Submit video.” In Kor’s submission, he explains that he lied to his bar-trivia team more than 12 years ago about his educational status: They believe he has a master’s degree when he got only a bachelor’s. The lie itself seems pretty minor, and Kor’s face is hard to read — he keeps his tone level and his expression steady — but when he explains that all his teammates had advanced degrees and he “wanted to seem smarter than I was,” we feel a tiny glimmer of understanding that there is something deeper moving under the surface of his regret.
For NFY fans, many aspects of these first few minutes will feel extremely familiar: Kor’s awkwardness in front of the camera, Fielder’s disclosure that he’s “not good at meeting people for the first time,” the idiosyncratically flat melodrama with which he announces he’s “about to ask this man to trust me with his life.” Even using a Craigslist post to draw in participants for Fielder’s schemes is a classic NFY trope. All these things feel familiar; we’re on solid ground.
Then, three minutes 40 seconds in, The Rehearsal’s premise kicks in: “This conversation’s been going pretty well so far, right?” Fielder asks Kor. “That’s no accident.” A trapdoor opens, and down we go.
I wish I could show you footage of myself watching the next sequence for the first time, sitting on the edge of my couch, scream-laughing, “Haha, what the fuck!” as a “gas company” digitally maps Kor’s apartment. I cannot remember the last time I laughed like I did when watching the re-creation of Kor’s place or the actor it hired to play him — my discomfort and amazement chemically combined into something almost toxically powerful.
It’s funny and impressive, and also I kept thinking, This is scary. If this happened to me, I would be scared. Kor has just learned that a crew of strangers broke into his house and created a replica of his home. Does this freak him out? Does he regret agreeing to be involved in this project? The look on his face as he takes in the news of this extreme violation of his privacy in front of an HBO camera crew is unreadable; his expression barely changes except for a few eyebrow raises and slow nods. It is amazing to see fake Kor’s “Wow” side by side with the real-world one’s identical reaction.
But when Fielder explains that Kor can practice confessing his lie to his teammates by rehearsing their conversation from every possible angle, Kor seems into it. “If I could know how the other person’s going to react in that situation … that would be extremely appealing, yes,” he says, smiling a little. “You’ll know!” Fielder says, thrilled to be joined inside the premise.
The series of events that arise after Fielder explains the concept of The Rehearsal feel strategically paced as though we’re being acclimated to the project by carefully measured degrees. When Fielder discovers that Kor is especially nervous about confessing his lie to one teammate, a woman he refuses to name but whose reaction he describes as “potentially very, very violent” (!?!?), he begins to deploy a series of elaborate tactics to extract Kor’s trust. He needs to learn what she’s like so they can plan for her reaction since she seems to be the most significant variable in this whole situation.
This was when I realized why this episode begins with so many callbacks to Nathan for You. Fielder is using the same technique on us that he’s using on Kor. As Fielder advances their relationship with what he describes as a “performance of vulnerability,” we start acclimating to the nature of that performance: loading the skeet-shooting guns with blanks, getting the “elderly man” to jump in the pool behind him so he won’t have to talk about his divorce. Each time a new manipulation is introduced, we have just enough time to adjust before the ground shifts under our feet again. By the time Kor reveals his teammate’s name (Tricia) and a few of her biographical details (a freelance writer with a crush on … Vincent Kartheiser?), we understand that this isn’t going to be enough for a full rehearsal by Fielder’s standards. By the time he hires a Tricia actor and sends her out on a covert intelligence-gathering mission with her real-world counterpart, it feels uncomfortable but not unthinkable. We’ve been trained to relax into a premise that 15 minutes earlier would have seemed completely nuts.
A note here on Tricia’s birding interview. Fielder’s editing of the scene — the way he emphasizes her mile-a-minute monologue — makes me laugh, and it also makes me feel bad, and I think that complication is worth examining. On the one hand, I can see why Kor is intimidated by the prospect of telling this person he’s lied to her. She has strong opinions and doesn’t seem easy to talk to. (It is objectively funny that she won’t give a woman she’s ostensibly interviewing any room to speak.) On the other hand, the way she’s presented does feel a bit cruel — Fielder is roasting her for relatively innocent behavior when she doesn’t even know she’s being filmed.
There’s a structural argument to be made that Fielder is not just being mean by presenting Tricia this way — he needs to establish that it’s going to be a challenge for Kor to get a word in edgewise during their interaction. Tricia is Kor’s rehearsal’s biggest variable; Fielder is just establishing the stakes. Still, the whole thing feels a bit queasy, as it always did in NFY. Once you start laughing, you’re implicated, no longer just an audience member marveling at the ridiculousness of the setup but a participant in Fielder’s way of seeing the world.
Kor is also getting used to the concept with a similar mixture of amazement and unease. When Fielder takes him into his perfect replica of the Alligator Lounge, he’s a bit looser than in their first conversation. Still, he’s not totally comfortable. The conversation in which he compares Fielder to Willy Wonka is perfect. Fielder is a man with near-infinite resources, building worlds inside his private workshop and bringing in outsiders to play by his rules.
Kor’s actual rehearsal is the calmest part of the show, and I felt grateful for it. There’s something oddly pleasant about watching his surrender to the process, taking Fielder’s directions on deflecting any possible flirtation or steering the conversation toward the topic of presidential twins. With his laptop harness and infinite flowchart, Fielder is as comfortable, clear, and communicative in this environment as we’ve ever seen him on TV. He’s so in control, and Kor has so bought into the whole exercise, that you almost lose track of why they’re there in the first place. “There’s something strange about entering a space that’s indistinguishable from another,” he says in voice-over. “In moments, you can forget where you are.”
By the time we get to Kor’s actual confession, the stakes have been established so thoroughly that the whole scenario runs itself. I could feel my shoulders tensing up around my ears while I waited to see if Kor would finally tell Tricia the truth; when he froze, I realized I’d been holding my breath. His fear is so palpable in that moment, the tug-of-war in his mind so intense, you can see it in his eyes. I was flooded with genuine relief when he confesses and filled with joy after Tricia’s reaction. When Kor reveals that his lie was born out of insecurity, and he opens up to her about his past, I nearly cried. I was genuinely proud of both of them for being so open and astounded that the whole thing had worked out so beautifully.
“Maybe it’s easiest to choose a path when you can live the future first,” Fielder says in the afterglow of Kor’s success. After 45 minutes of this emotional roller coaster, I can see where he’s coming from. I know intellectually that it’s not possible to barricade yourself against all of life’s uncertainties. But the show’s careful escalation has worked its magic on me. Fielder’s methods might be a little unorthodox, but Kor seems as if he’s feeling true relief.
And honestly, don’t we all fantasize about this kind of thing anytime we have to make a difficult life decision? Don’t we often wish we could see every possible outcome and pick the best one? If I could see in advance what might happen if I went back to school, quit my job, or had a baby, I would do it in a heartbeat. Maybe this whole idea makes sense after all.
• I almost peed my pants laughing at the part where they just say “Cheap Chick in the City” back and forth. Why is it so mesmerizing?
• Fielder’s elaborate flowchart — all those galaxies of possibility branching off and weaving into one another — looks like a perfect map of an anxious brain. It made me think of this explainer video about the James Webb Space Telescope images. Specifically, the feeling you get when they zoom out and you realize what you’re seeing is just one tiny sliver of a much, much larger picture that keeps going in every direction forever. Whoops!
• I’d need a whole separate essay to even begin with the daily walks he takes Kor on to implant the trivia answers in his mind. Similarly, the final run-through before Kor’s big night is bedazzled with too many perfect details to count, but I think my favorite was the “pizza oven” at the back of the bar. When they cut to the crew member dumping the unmade one in the trash, I fully lost it.
• Also … when Fielder’s in Thrifty Boy drag talking to the trivia guy … does he quietly eat a full ketchup packet as if it’s an edamame bean? Give the man an Oscar.