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The Nathan for You star bends reality again
In a brief scene toward the end of the second episode of The Rehearsal, series star, creator, and director Nathan Fielder takes a reflective moment to consider the direction the show, and his own loneliness while making it, as he walks into a bar. Except it's not really a bar. It's an exact recreation of a Brooklyn bar built for a previous episode and then reconstructed on the other side of the country in an Oregon warehouse. It's not even a place that's particularly meaningful to Fielder, having been built for the needs of the first episode's subject. But, as twinkling music plays, the scene takes on a weird poignance. Fielder may be a man sitting in an offshoot of an elaborate alternate reality of his own creation, but as he sips a soda alone at the bar, he also looks like a man trying to use that alternate reality to figure out something about the real world.
It's that impulse that makes The Rehearsal much more than a prank show. Like its predecessor, Nathan for You — in which Fielder used his degree from "one of Canada's top business schools" to concoct plans to help small businesses — it uses discomfort and absurdity as experimental tools. The comedy might come first, but there's an anthropological impulse that drives what Fielder does (even if, as a recent New York profile notes, not everyone who participated in Fielder's last show is on board with the ethics behind Fielders' inquiries).
The premise of The Rehearsal is nearly as simple as that of Nathan for You: To help ordinary people work through difficult moments they'll soon confront, Fielder allows them to partake in meticulously detailed simulations of the moment itself. The first episode, in which a teacher prepares to reveal he's lied about having a master's degree to a longtime friend on his trivia team, involves constructing an exact duplicate of a favorite hangout, hiring an actor to play the friend, and bringing in dozens more actors to play the employees and customers at the bar, then gaming out every possible approach and reaction to the revelation and mapping them out on a flowchart that should eliminate any possible problem.
Except, of course, it can't. The Rehearsal is a show whose very concept is a setup for failure, but that's also part of what makes it work. Fielder sincerely seems to want to make sense of a chaotic world through planning and comedy. The second episode introduces Angela, a woman who ostensibly wants to prepare for motherhood (and a life on a self-sustaining farm from which she runs an online business). Fielder tries to meet her need via child actors of various ages (to simulate the full experience of parenthood means working on a compressed schedule) and lifelike dolls (to work hours prohibited by child labor laws). It's both brilliant and ridiculous, a beautifully designed scheme that's clearly doomed to go off the rails.
But it's how it goes off the rails that matters. Rather than serving as the subject of one episode, Angela — a devout follower of a bespoke, New Age-influenced Christianity that leads her to caution Fielder about the omnipresence of Satanists — sticks around as Fielder works on other rehearsals. To say more would spoil a key element of the series. Suffice it to say that her continued presence gives the show a thematic, and sometimes emotional, depth that seems to go beyond its original plans for her.
Fielder's work has always felt resonant in ways that simple descriptions of its content can't suggest in part because Fielder's such a singular presence. His unbreakable deadpan never lets his subjects in on the joke, and even those who pick up that something is going on beyond what they've been told have to question their own disbelief thanks to his commitment. He never winks or breaks character. But that character also seems like a sincere extension of his own concerns.
"I'm not good at meeting people for the first time. I've been told that my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that," Fielder says in the voiceover that introduces the series. That much at least seems on the level, and the fleeting allusions to Fielder's personal life suggest that The Rehearsal, and maybe his whole comedy career, has a therapeutic element, serving as a tool to understand a confusing world.
Even if that's not the case, the elaborate, reality-bending halls of mirrors seen throughout The Rehearsal — at least in the five episodes of the six-episode season provided to critics — should easily raise the same questions for viewers. In one Fielder operates a school to train actors interested in appearing on the show that folds the act of imitation into itself in ways both hilarious and unsettling. But that, of course, is what Fielder does, and with this probing, surprising, and extremely funny new series he's done it again, and on a scale no one has ever attempted before (because who else would even think to try?).
Premieres: Friday, July 15 at 11/10c on HBO
Who's in it: Nathan Fielder
Who's behind it: Nathan Fielder, Clark Reinking (How to With John Wilson, Nathan for You), Dave Paige (Nathan for You)
For fans of: Nathan for You
How many episodes we watched: 5 out of 6