Nathan Fielder’s artificial hells
IN EPISODE THREE of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, an affable woman in glasses, sitting in a Raising Cane’s booth overlooking a vast and lonely soundstage, dips a chicken finger into a tub of sauce, lifts it millimeters from her mouth, smiles at an unseen someone across from her as she jovially bites the air three times, then places the intact poultry prop down. The distance between the zealous extra’s smacking lips and the chicken is negligible, and yet, metaphorically, it encapsulates the entire series’ edging relationship to the meticulous art of connection.
The Rehearsal’s stated attempts at building bridges—whether between prop chicken finger and real mouth or a fake father and fake son—mask Fielder’s ultimate goal: to sustain a body of work that exists almost entirely in the abysses between us. The Rehearsal, in which Vancouverite sex symbol and Holocaust awareness softshell jacket entrepreneur Fielder “helps” people rehearse for uncertain situations—be it a confession or a confrontation or parenthood—withholds fulfillment by slipping constantly into new layers of unreality, achieving a durationally unnerving experience and forging a poetic New Insincerity.
The Rehearsal begins with a Fielderian bit of misdirection, leading audiences, in its first episode, to believe its format, stakes, and tone might be similar to that of his compactly pandemonious docu-comedy series, Nathan for You (2013–17), where simple problems twisted into Gordian knots within segmented twenty-three-minute episodes. The Rehearsal ended wrapped in a blanket of melancholy and unease, the result of creating perhaps the most sustained immersion in the uncanny valley TV has ever seen.
In Comedy Central’s Nathan for You—performance art in prank-show clothing, and a grim market economy fairy tale—Fielder assumed the persona of a zombie nebbish Gordon Ramsay, activating his impenetrable deadpan and “really good grades” from one of “Canada’s top business schools” to coach foundering Los Angeles-area small businesses on how to “make it in this competitive world.” The series diverted the desperation of the American petite bourgeoisie under corporatocracy into pointless odysseys toward illusory success. (In one episode, Fielder convinced the owner of a gas station to let him place a rebate dropbox at the top of Mount Chilao; customers willingly partook in the climb up a mountain made out of a molehill). The show sent viewers into ethical somersaults to justify enjoyment of something that was, in an age where quality is so often measured in virtue, a little mean. The Rehearsal, more elliptical and slippery, anticipated its place in discourse, and rehearsed to outsmart and confound it, unpacking its own dizzy amorality in real time.
The first episode saw Fielder once again leading a “real” person into his Theater of the Absurd, exploding the stakes of interpersonal minutiae to behemoth proportions. Fielder’s first target was Kor Skeet, an obsessive trivia enthusiast who had lied to his bar trivia teammates about having a master’s degree and wanted to come clean to one friend—Trish, author of a sporadically updated blog called Cheap Chick in the City—whom he thought might take it poorly, even “violently.”
Fielder’s crew built a painstaking replica of Williamsburg’s weathered, pizza-stuffed Alligator Lounge, whose trivia nights Skeet often attends, to host rehearsals of his confession—the facsimiles of the bar’s teal brick facade, rain-drooled awning, butthurt vinyl seating, off-kilter framed alligator print, Fireball sign, chalkboard menu, spice racks, and Mylar balloon nestled in the corner of the ceiling, all juxtaposed against the gray endlessness of its purgatorial soundstage encasement. Fielder found an actress (Gigi Burgdorf) to trick Trish into meeting so she could observe and mimic her speech and mannerisms. (Meanwhile, Fielder himself was rehearsing for his encounters with real-life Kor with an actor, two-time Tony nominee K. Todd Freeman, in the role of Fake Kor). Every word and gesture of Kor’s future confession Fielder mapped out with flowchart software, with worlds spinning out from each potential response. What Nathan Fielder was peddling, to participants and to his own on-screen self, was the false promise that the bundle of variables that is another human being could be planned. Trish, around whose alleged gremlin temper a constellation of flowcharted outcomes had been predicted, graciously, and nonchalantly, accepts Kor’s confession.
The next five episodes take a sharp turn into long-form immersion: Fielder’s second subject, a born-again Christian named Angela whose favorite movie is Apocalypto—because of the way Mel Gibson’s “camera just floats”—and who prays that God, not Nathan, will determine her experience of being on The Rehearsal, wants to rehearse parenting a child from the cradle to young adulthood. Fielder attempts to find a suitable coparent to cohabitate in Angela’s rural Oregon dream house; when that fails, he decides to step into the role himself. In episodes three to five, Fielder raises a “child” with Angela, with the crew adhering to labor laws by swapping out infant actors—through windows, in parking lots—when Fielder and Angela aren’t looking. Fielder has supermarket vegetables wedged in the ground of their funhouse farmhouse, and Angela blithely picks waxen, unrooted, sometimes still stickered zucchini and bell peppers from the dirt, placing them in a basket in her personalized Potemkin bucolic idyll.
In episode five, Fielder’s real parents visit his trad kitsch Matrix and encourage him to introduce his fake child to Judaism. He takes “Adam” to “swimming lessons”—actually Hebrew tutoring—clandestinely offering his fabricated six-year-old an alternative to the fundamentalist Christian upbringing Angela has imposed, pouring water on him after each lesson so Angela believes the ruse. The holy war that unfolds across the episode wears Angela down. She leaves the social experiment, and Fielder pretend-single-parents a Jewish son. (He simultaneously discloses to one of the child actors out of character, per the request of the child’s actual mother, that Judaism isn’t real and that he will burn for eternity). In the season finale, Fielder throws a birthday party for his fake kid, casting extras as guests; due to union rules, they’re contractually prohibited from uttering a word on camera. The house is full of people enthusiastically mouthing a wholesome good time, in dead silence.
After one child actor, Remy, forms an attachment to Fielder as an actual father figure, Fielder attempts a rehearsal relationship with fewer emotional liabilities: fathering a mannequin, fathering an adult man (whom he tickles and carries like a giant son, but who also vapes on his break) bowl-wigged and overalled as a six-year-old. When rehearsing with these less convincing Adams proves unrewarding, Fielder reenacts where he went wrong with Remy, organizing a playdate with another child actor and Remy with the ulterior motive of getting the new actor insight into playing Remy. Fielder takes on the role of Remy’s mother in the season’s eerily invasive conclusion, softly comforting the weeping fake-Remy he’s created, who refuses to let go of his character and his faux-father: “Maybe we shouldn’t have done that show, huh?” says Fielder as a caring mother, his unshakeable touch of irony almost imperceptible, yet still bitterly seasoning the sad moment. “It’s a weird thing for a little kid to be a part of.”
Though Nathan Fielder the character repeatedly asserts a desire to break through his state of perpetual detachment to forge meaningful connections between himself and others, Nathan Fielder the producer, director, and creator has constructed a solipsistic hell where every facet of life is deconstructed, predicted, reenacted. In the show’s pseudo-emotional climax, itself a rehearsal with actress Anna Lamadrid—tasked to embody Angela to help Fielder understand his Bible-thumping coparent—Fake Angela tells Fielder, “If this were real, you would have some sort of emotion instead of standing there like a rock. Do you want to feel something? Do you want to feel something real? That’s sad. You never will.”
Responses to the series, already renewed for a second season, have run the psychological diagnostic gamut: Many have invoked sociopathy to describe Fielder’s character; others narcissism; others have cited social anxiety; some have lauded the series as an allegory for neurodivergent experiences. Accusations of exploitation and manipulation have, meanwhile, engendered rapid cycles of problematizing and backlash. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody found the series so morally bankrupt in its “cruel and arrogant gaze” as to be compelled to “throw [his] laptop across the room.” Perhaps the proliferous discourse the series stirred (and anticipated) is proof that a cringe can be a more exhilarating invitation than a didactic pat on the back.
Last year, responding to the popularity of the unabashedly treacly Ted Lasso, James Poniewozik wrote in the New York Times that “the arc of the last 20 years” is, “in broad terms, a shift from irony to sincerity . . . Two decades ago, TV’s most distinctive stories were defined by a tone of dark or acerbic detachment. Today, they’re more likely to be earnest and direct.” This would be a harder statement to make in 2022, the year The Rehearsal overtook discourse and made the most compelling case against the abandonment of postmodernism for unreconstructed authenticity. With series like Succession, The Boys, Atlanta, or the self-care-influencer-as-zombie-apocalypse-bringer arc of the final season of Search Party, earnestness has a parallel trend in the scathing renaissance of American satire. The rise of the multiverse—whether in Everything Everywhere All at Once or the media-monopolistic excesses of Marvel, and the congruent dawn of the metaverse—simultaneously suggests an era of conglomerate, prismatic realities.
In The Rehearsal, the Brechtian machinery of distanciation is always on display. A vertiginous drone shot reveals “winter” to be the result of crew members sifting fake snow like confectioners’ sugar over the Oregon house, the illusion ending in a hard perimeter tightly hugging the structure. A digital clock looms over the household, counting down the hours before the crew is legally obligated to swap out a child actor. Actors playing crew members ask actors playing participants to sign release forms and, presumably, NDAs.
The Rehearsal skins itself—and thereby television as a whole—alive and bares its ridiculous organs. If it doesn’t feel good to sit in a simulacral ouroboros of a series that circumvents any hope of a single authentic connection, it is perhaps because, in its disquieting way, its many lies feel honest.
The Rehearsal is currently streaming on HBO Max.