This isn’t a rehearsal: the strange moral world of Nathan Fielder

HBO’s recent docu-series The Rehearsal is hard to watch. It’s also a piece of television genius. The seductive premise is that if you were able to rehearse for the important moments of your life, accounting for every possible variable and scenario, you wouldn’t fall short of the moment and achieve the perfect performance. As host Nathan Fielder explains: ‘A happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance.’

The show has drawn in scores of viewers thanks to its conceit and Fielder’s deadpan performance. But Fielder, no stranger to the uncomfortable, soon derails the experience for his Craigslist-sourced subjects, and what will equally repel and attract viewers is the tour de force of absurdist comedy that ensues, and the masterclass in manipulation that gets us there. Yet few reviews of The Rehearsal have been positive, and critics seem uncomfortable with the show’s ethically dubious formula. Its recently-announced renewal for a second season will be surprising to many—but should it be?

Fielder emerged to audiences via his Comedy Central show Nathan For You, which tapped out after four seasons of Fielder masquerading as a po-faced business school grad. The plan: to pitch unique schemes to middling local businesses.

The success of the show—leaning further into the reality television arena than the docu-series of its successor—lay in how it blurred the line between logic, credibility and the absurd. In ‘Electronics Store’, for example, Fielder convinces a small store to bankrupt retail giant Best Buy, charging $1 for an expensive flatscreen that BestBuy would have to price-match, thus incurring a massive loss. The $1 set would also be available at the small store, contingent upon the customer observing a black-tie dress code, crawling through a two-foot-tall door and edging past a guarding alligator. The semblance of logic initially offered by Fielder frequently disintegrates over such episodes but, fuelled by Fielder’s camera crew, a sense of American exceptionalism and the necessity to creatively compete, many business owners were successfully strung along.

The Rehearsal is an extension of this perfidious mission statement. Through practice, Kor will have the chance to clarify a decade-long misunderstanding with truculent trivia teammate Tricia about his level of education; Patrick will be able to confidently challenge a codicil that bars him from his grandfather’s inheritance so long as he is dating a ‘gold digger’; and Angela, who wants to be a mother, will get to raise a child—or, rather, a number of actors working four-hour shifts—to see if she is ready for the real deal. As with Nathan For You, the show’s greatest attribute lies in Fielder’s ability to prey on people convinced of his earnest nature. And so, what begins as role-playing exercises soon devolves into elaborate schadenfreudian amusement for the viewer and confusion for the subjects.

For example, Fielder visits a shooting range with Kor but loads both guns with blanks so Kor will bond with Fielder over their mutual failure. As this then leads into discussions around the larger failures in their lives (as per Fielder’s plan) Kor opens up about his failed marriage. When it is Fielder’s turn to respond, a paid actor disrupts the scene. In another segment, two actors being taught by Fielder are overlaid upon one another while relaying the same story. The story is being recounted by the first actor, and practised for the class as a monologue for the second. As the first actor details the lengths they took to mimic someone’s life, the second actor declares they committed a breaking-and-entering crime in the process. The segment returns to the first actor, and to rapturous applause from fellow classmates.

It gets worse. The same Fielder who, during the course of Nathan For You, once convinced a hotel to install soundproof child rooms so holidaying parents could have sex in peace (and tested it by locking a child in a sound-proof box while adult stars did their thing outside of it), again tests the limits of the reality television genre by convincing one of the child actors—the fatherless and confused six-year-old Remy—that Fielder is his real father. This proves that not only are very young actors incapable of processing what is real and what isn’t while on these television-sanctioned excursions, but they evidently lack the parental guidance necessary to navigate these demands. In a The New York Times video interview on Nathan For You, the typically inscrutable Fielder states: ‘There’s a lot of parents who want their children to be on television. It just took saying do you want to be on TV and then here’s a hundred dollars, I guess.’ Fielder is later seen in The Rehearsal reminding parents that the fee offered is generous, and there are others to take their child’s place if they are having doubts.

And so the series takes on the car-crash appeal of Jerry Springer and the shocking complicity of Derren Brown’s The Push. If Nathan For You was the disintegration of logic, then The Rehearsal is the merging of fact and fiction until what is genuinely documented and what is contrived for the camera cannot be easily distinguished.

On the one hand, if Fielder’s subjects are in fact actors, what are we to make of their roles? Kor possesses appalling low self-confidence, smiling awkwardly as Fielder steamrolls him. Angela emerges as the crazed archetype of religious zeal, warning that Google is run by the Devil. Patrick, sporting a Punisher necklace (a possible nod to neo-Nazis), declares his girlfriend to be ‘pretty much a Jew’ when it comes to saving money. Is there an actor who wants their career to consist of a single televised role only no-one can ever know that it isn’t in fact your doleful life on their screens? To confuse the issue further, many of the subjects of the show, including Kor and Angela, can be found on Cameo.

If, on the other hand, The Rehearsal is a documentary, it is the role of the viewer to be called into question. Fielder manipulates our scepticism, and within our hesitation co-opts any moral absolutism to leave the door ajar for his exoneration—all while charging ahead with his axe. It’s hard to draw a line in the sand when you’re not sure where you are standing. Once Fielder has you in this moral logjam, it is difficult to disengage—and here lies the genius of the show. If Fielder is the only one who knows where things really stand, then this not only affords viewers enough doubt to forgive his actions, but also any complicity of their own.

And so what becomes the most striking of its offerings is that The Rehearsal presents the reality of live-environment television as the consequence of our demands upon the medium. The ambit of The Rehearsal is overwhelming: the sheer number of people involved to facilitate its proliferating narratives; the intricacies and scale of design, both in terms of plot and the many replicated, to-scale, buildings; the very likely legal fees ensuring everything went off smoothly during production and now, in the speculation-driven aftermath of the show—clearly, no expense was spared.

It defies belief to assume the network would have been completely aware of the trajectory and complexity of the project, particularly given he was a relative unknown and the idea hardly sure-fire. The most likely scenario is that the executives gave Fielder a blank cheque so long as he handed back something controversial, trending, unique: that he push further than he—perhaps anyone—has pushed before.

Sceptic David Hume once posited it to be rational to prefer the destruction of a city to the pricking of one’s finger, a position that increasingly worms its way into your psyche upon watching The Rehearsal. What sets Fielder’s show apart from other live-environment shows is that Fielder takes care to show viewers exactly how he manipulated otherwise semi-regular people for the sake of our entertainment. His rap sheet is appalling yet entirely on display, and Fielder—for all his dishonesty to his subjects—is honest with us.

The trajectory of Fielder’s career to date suggests that season two of The Rehearsal  is certain to push us further. With each new budget granted to him, Fielder threatens to make this feedback loop even grander. In the end, he will go as far as we will.

Joshua Klarica

Joshua Klarica is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He lives and works on Gadigal and Wangal land, writing poetry, essays, and fiction. He recently finished up his honours year studying English Literature at The University of Sydney. His work can be found across the internet, and in Australian and international publications such as Mascara Literary Review, Aniko Press (Online), Backstory Journal, and Wild Court.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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