There’s a famous bit from an early episode of Nathan For You that has served as a gateway for many people’s understanding into Nathan Fielder’s whole thing. In the show, Fielder posed as a freelance business consultant who concocted crazy schemes for small companies in need of a boost. The show’s laughs — and it had more of them per episode than most shows of the decade — came not only from the execution of these schemes, but Fielder’s interactions with everyone along the way. Socially, Fielder strikes a unique balance of confident and insecure, commanding and awkward. It’s never quite clear what is and isn’t an act.
For example, in the clip in question, Fielder has just finished a deranged plan for a struggling gas station. He offered customers heavily discounted gas after a rebate — a rebate at the end of a mountain hike, an overnight camping trip and a round of riddles. The plan ended up being a bust but, in the closing moments, the gas station’s owner lets slip that drinking a small child’s urine is a cure for anxiety. Fielder, gifted with maybe the most stone cold demeanor in the business, can barely contain his confusion.
It’s in these moments that Fielder’s strange act takes on its most interesting energy. Fielder’s genius is in the sheer audacity of the houses of cards he builds, but he is very aware that if you leave the camera running long enough, a rogue element will bring the whole thing collapsing, and that might be the best part of all. Over at the Atlantic, Shirley Li wrote that Fielder “is the true butt of the joke” in all his work, but that’s a little simplistic. The butt of the joke is a moving target in Fielder’s comedy, as he throws himself into chaos with abandon, surrounding himself with the most unpredictable elements he can find and seeing what happens when you try to herd them. The results can be outrageous, hilarious, uncomfortable and sometimes even moving.
Now, he’s taken what he learned from Nathan For You over to HBO for the next chapter of his career: The Rehearsal. Armed with an HBO-sized budget and a far more slippery premise, Fielder is acting less as a business consultant than a life coach by way of Willy Wonka. His simple pitch: What if life’s most difficult moments had a practice round? From a man named Core Skeet who wants to come clean about a white lie, to a woman thinking about exiting the rat race for a new life devoted to motherhood, Fielder rebuilds these people’s homes and workplaces in a New York warehouse, hires actors to populate these little worlds and then coaches his clients through their decisions and plots the myriad ways things could go right or wrong until they leave with the perfect script to handle their decision and, ostensibly, every possible scenario. It is strange, gripping television.
The lengths Fielder goes to perfectly recreate their lives is an astonishment. When he brings Core to a note-for-note recreation of his trivia night bar of choice, the man’s bewilderment is palpable. You’re right there with him. It’s unsettling, and it’s just the beginning. Fielder has dispatched an actor to covertly meet one of Core’s friends and take notes so that she can accurately play her in The Rehearsal‘s test runs. In a truly wild sequence, Fielder disguises himself, dupes the bar trivia host into giving him the answers to the evening’s questions and then, unbeknownst to Core, seeds those factoids into the background of Core’s day-to-day life so that he’ll know all the answers and can focus on telling his friend he lied to her many years ago.
Call it surreality TV, television so real that it’s almost too real. And at the helm of it all is Fielder, a person who himself doesn’t seem quite real, as he himself frequently notes. After all, as he tells Core in the show’s pilot, Fielder himself has gone through his own workshop and practiced his first meeting with Core in a perfect recreation of Core’s apartment with an actor many times. Viewers themselves then get to see Fielder’s practice run on explaining himself to Core.
We also get to see Fielder come clean about some of his own deception. He tells the actor playing Core that he wasn’t entirely truthful at certain points — a confession that goes over so poorly in the rehearsal that Fielder decides to skip it in real life. This, again, is where it’s not entirely clear who The Rehearsal‘s subject is. Is it the clients coming in to practice life in a place where nothing is left to chance? Or is it Fielder himself, whose own insecurities burble beneath the surface of every interaction? Or is it us, the viewers, catapulted into the eccentricity of the show’s concept? There may not be one right answer here.
In 2013, Tim Krieder wrote that “if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” This seems, in many ways, to be Fielder’s driving focus. He explicitly ties his loneliness and inability to connect with others to his desire to keep life under control. Because he is always the puppet master in these situations, he never needs to submit to any ordeal so mortifying as being known. He knows a lot about his clients, but they know nothing about him. It’s not easy to find human connection, but how much of Fielder’s own sense of alienation is his own doing? This show clearly wants us asking that question, although it’s not clear what it thinks the answer should be.
And maybe this is the great joke of The Rehearsal: Our own disconnect from love because we refuse to submit to anyone, and maintain a sense of control over our lives that keeps us from enjoying the full reward of love. You don’t have to undergo Fielder’s radical practice technique to suffer the consequences of keeping everyone else around you at arm’s length. But, as The Rehearsal strongly implies, you may have to let go of your fear of being known before you can experience the full joy of being loved for who you are.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.