Throughout the course of his sleeper hit Comedy Central series, Nathan For You, Nathan Fielder constantly—and, of course, hilariously—blurred the lines between reality and fiction. Never quite a mockumentary series, but too absurdly augmented to be authentic (even when life can be stranger than fiction), the host/filmmaker weaved his way into the interchanging honesty in hilarity and the hilarity in honesty. This tradition continues—and expands—with his follow-up series, HBO’s The Rehearsal.
Being the man in front of (and behind) the camera and introducing himself to strangers as a self-professed business expert allowed this gawkish, socially-awkward, emotionally-insecure performer to have the meek cadence of professionalism—even when every single word that came out of his mouth verged into inane psychopathy. And though it started as a show where its eponymous host suggested that a local yogurt shop offer poop-flavored deserts in an effort to shock and entice potential customers, Nathan For You eventually became a poignant study on strained human connection and the obscene lengths—dramatic and, naturally, uproarious—that people, notably Fielder, will go in order to remold or even reconceptualize themselves (or, more aptly, their business and/or image).
But even beyond that, as explored in its affecting feature-length finale, “Finding Frances,” we see how Fielder (or, perhaps, “Fielder”) is using his own show not solely as a means to help others, but to try to find himself (or maybe more accurately, some TV-friendly version of himself) and, in the process, earn affection, understanding, and, should it come his way, love from others—even if it might only be fleeting.
By the end of Nathan For You, Fielder finds the connection that he long sought after, but as the show often suggests, this could all simply be an illusion of happiness. Even when it seems like the walls are breaking down, we are watching everything through the filter of Fielder’s lens. Is he ultimately selling himself on the image of contentment and happiness and self-fulfillment? The series finale of Nathan for You is, thus, a bittersweet goodbye—one that’s filled with tender and even meaningful self-reflection, but created as a means of finding a sense of closure for a personality who has humorously struggled to interact with others. Are we more or less content if we believe it’s true love, even if it’s not? If it’s not totally real, Fielder has at least sold us on the possibility that it could be real. And isn’t that better than the real deal? Isn’t that what he (and we) want?
With Nathan For You and its sublimely sentimental send-off, Fielder used his own camera as a vessel to explore the thin line between persona and personality. As the show continued onward, Fielder constantly used his resources as a source of good to help (or try to help) others. But the focus would only continue to point back to him, and how he is ultimately the one who’s trying to gain the confidence of other people, to allow them to come into his life and earn his trust—even if Fielder feels the need to use tricks and increasingly elaborate stunts to receive that wayward affection. The brilliance of Nathan for You was found in the ways the Canadian comic used the business help show model as an exploration for self-help, as a means of finding the assurance that he (convincingly or unconvincingly) professed.
As the show went on, Fielder’s guard went down—or, perhaps, that’s what Fielder wants you to believe. Maybe we only saw more layers to his personality, creating a web of deception that only appears to be honest to our perception. Fielder’s disarming charm and unseemingly screen persona do look honest in how unseemingly it can be, but is that solely a tactic? How well do we really know the man behind the camera? And more importantly, how well does Fielder ultimately know himself?
This all leads us to his newest series, HBO’s The Rehearsal, a show that’s not directly tied to his previous one, but plays as a spiritual successor or, perhaps, its natural evolution. Similar to how his previous program saw the TV host using his services as a way to help small businesses gain or renew public interest through bizarre/unconventional publicity stunts, Fielder’s The Rehearsal sees the host entering the private lives of others and allowing them to rehearse pivotal moments, in order to know every possible variable and perform as their best, most confident and/or most efficient selves. But in typical Fielder fashion, The Rehearsal becomes a playhouse for Nathan to try to build the best version of his own self—or, maybe, a version of himself that can authenticate the future that he wants for himself, but can all too often seem out of reach.
Thus, Fielder’s latest show continues to blur the lines between fiction and reality, documentation and creation (and recreation), serving as a proper evolution for both Fielder’s style and selfhood, as he only continues to explore how much we can create the world we want for ourselves, and whether or not it is more or less real when we craft it for ourselves.
Over the course of six episodes (though only three were seen for this article), The Rehearsal, the second show in Fielder’s HBO deal following the wonderful How to with John Wilson, picks up thematically after the events of Nathan For You. In that feature-long conclusion, Fielder is shown putting on a rehearsal for Bill Heath, a Bill Gates impersonator who wants to reconnect with his long-lost love. Opting not to help a business but to help a friend in need, even an odd one like Heath, Fielder puts on a stage production of their fated meeting, allowing Heath to play out the romance (or “romance”) that will unfold in this pivotal reunion.
As to be expected, the events that transpire don’t exactly go according to plan, though Heath ends the film by asking the stage actress that played the part of his long-lost Frances on a date. Thus, in fitting Fielder fashion, further blurring the lines between the reality we want, the reality we live in, and the reality (faux or otherwise) that we attempt to create for ourselves. Meanwhile, Fielder gets together with Maci, an escort he hired, in a storyline that loosely parallels Heath’s journey and sees the ways that Fielder can never be a totally impassive observer—at least, not under his own lens.
In this new series, Fielder offers his assistance to let strangers “rehearse” meaningful moments in their lives, such as confessing a long-harbored lie to a close friend, practicing the delicacies of motherhood, or confronting a stubborn sibling, as seen in these introductory episodes. Much like Nathan For You, the pilot finds Fielder going to extraneous and elaborately intrusive lengths to pull off this mission.
But unlike that Comedy Central show, though similar to its conclusion, this HBO series allows Fielder to fight the tight 22-minute runtime and create a more sprawling and serialized series, particularly with its second episode, which sees Fielder letting himself become a more active part of his own social experimentations and breaking the walls found between self and study.
As a result, as many have already noted, The Rehearsal starts to play something like Fielder’s Synechode, New York—or maybe his own Adaptation, to compare his work to another Charlie Kaufman project. As the narrative becomes more intricately personal, while not totally moving away from the format established, Fielder’s latest series becomes a far more existential piece, exploring the ways that work and home life can never truly be separated in Fielder’s own work, and how everything ultimately becomes a spectacle in and of itself when you’re tampering with the well-being of other people’s lives, not merely their profession.
The aforementioned playhouse motif that takes center stage in this season’s first half allows Fielder to create an appropriate metaphor for the ways that he is often fabricating the details of reality, or finding the truth within the depths of an inherent false actuality. It’s exploring the ways that people, especially in a media age where we can feel more comfortable presenting lies that we want people to believe are the truth, often try to combat the pressures of fear and deep-seated anxiety—especially as we get older—and push against the ever-present worries that come with not knowing how to take control of our lives.
Anyone with anxiety knows that there are always variables in place that come with living life — too many possibilities for panic and catastrophe that we wish we could minimize entirely. Particularly when parenthood comes into play, it’s easy to desire some sense of god-like control over the well-being of your child. And if you’re lonely and/or stricken by the pressures of social interaction, it’s easy to want to have a way of avoiding all the tremors of social interaction and know how to do or say the right thing.
There’s inherently something poetic and/or ironic about how The Rehearsal amps up the anxiety that we feel for Fielder and the uncomfortableness we can experience for the people around him. The deliberate irony here is that he made a show about people trying to mitigate the social worries that plague or haunt them. In trying to predict every scenario, and discover how we can make the best outcome for ourselves, we’re quickly overwhelmed by the substantive depths of our innate failures, and how we ultimately cannot completely comprehend the lengths of our own limitations.
Even when you have a larger, more substantive budget, as provided by the deep pockets of HBO over Comedy Central, there’s always a greater risk of danger and, therefore, failure. And as Fielder becomes more personally intertwined with the subjects at hand, he’s doomed to overstep his reach and prevent them—and subsequently himself (or “himself)—from finding the desired comfort they seek. Of course, maybe that’s the plan all long for Fielder, the creator.
Especially following the show’s premiere, a lot has been said about whether or not Fielder’s brand of comedy is too deceptive. Is he presenting people in the worst light, and therefore giving people the wrong perception of who they are, all in the service of laughing at them? Certainly, there are subjects who have spoken out against the way they were seen on Fielder’s previous show, and now, Robin, the centerpiece of Episode 2’s second half, has become critical of his portrayal on the show, while also making himself look more insane than he did under Fielder’s direction. Alas, there is something interesting to explore in how Fielder’s shows rely on the need to make people look as self-conscious, inept, and awkward as Fielder does.
Nevertheless, while there’s room for discourse there, I always took Nathan For You to be an uplifting series about how we’re all just looking for some sort of spark to other people. Whether they’re customers, viewers, the people we love, the people we soon grow to love, or complete and total strangers, Fielder’s lens has remained an inquisitive one. And one that provided a great deal of comfort and intrigue to the outside world when I watched it in its entirety during the pandemic—i.e. when I was trapped in my walled-in existence, away from the dangers and realities of the world around me, one that was well outside of my own control.
There’s definitely something to be said about The Rehearsal being made during the COVID era, even when it’s often not directly commented upon in the show. As the pandemic prevented folks from being properly connected to others, spiked social anxieties, and kept us from feeling at ease about the state of the world and where we can expect our futures to go, Fielder’s shows have an extra layer of poignancy—whether it’s intended with his newest venture or not.
At their core, Nathan For You, “Finding Frances,” and The Rehearsal explore Fielder’s attempt to understand people, including the unknowable qualities of ourselves, and how the camera serves as a benefit and a crutch for his pursuit of human connection. Fielder’s capabilities as showrunner and director afford him the opportunity to pursue elaborate schemes and wayward, twisted-logic deceptions, but rarely does Fielder’s lens seem totally spiteful or probing. He yearns to know and relate to people, and he has a knack for attracting odd personalities who don’t mind opening up their strange and unconventional attitudes about the world around them.
Certainly, what’s intriguing about Fielder is that we often get a sense that we know him, but we really only get brief windows into his own world. A key moment in The Rehearsal finds Fielder briefly discussing his real-life divorce, one of the topics that didn’t come up at all (to the best of my recollection) in his previous program. It’s a rare, truly unguarded moment from Fielder, and it’s fitting that this interaction is quickly interrupted by a man Fielder hired to break the tension that he knew would arrive.
It’s hard to say for certain how much we actually know about Fielder, the man, versus Fielder, the performer, working alongside Fielder, the filmmaker. The Rehearsal continues to explore the hazy ways that any person tapping into people’s private lives is going to reveal more about themselves than others in the process—even when those revelations might not be the full and honest truth.
Where Nathan For You serves as a sharp, sometimes sneering media critique of America’s showbiz-happy capitalistic society, The Rehearsal becomes grander, even more elaborate, and fittingly not the type of show that’s easy to sell in a quick pitch. A very loose description would make it sound akin to The Truman Show if it were made by some odd amalgamation of Andy Kaufman and Agnes Varda. It’s ultimately much too revealing to skew completely into the sardonic, and it’s too laced in ironic detachment to be a sobering bit of autobiographical documentary filmmaking.
As he evolves into a densely expansive storyteller, one who avoids easy labels and makes work that is inherently his own, Fielder only continues to blur the murky lines between fiction and fact and personality versus persona. By blending the personal and professional, both with his clients and with himself versus his public persona, Fielder is creating uniquely “Nathan Fielder” works. Who exactly Nathan Fielder is is something that’s designed to expand. The Rehearsal is, thus, just a practice run for what’s to come.