Nathan Fielder’s HBO series ‘The Rehearsal’ is imaginative, original, and essential work

It’s the rare reality show that owns up to its fakery, and one we’d be better off having more of

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal. - HBO
HBO
Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal.

“No surprises — you know everything that’s gonna happen.” That’s the seductive, untenable promise Nathan Fielder makes to his subjects in The Rehearsal, a baroque six-episode reality experiment whose first season just wrapped on HBO Max (and was just green-lighted for a second season). But the show’s extravagant scenarios are (contrary to what he promises) full of surprises, seeing Fielder aid participants in dealing with problems that they, whether anxious, aspiring, or traumatized, cannot or feel they cannot solve on their own. As he stages elaborate rehearsals of daunting situations riddled with dialogue trees, architectural replicas, and countless extras, Fielder himself becomes embroiled as performer, producer, and orchestrator, even while presenting himself at first as some quasi-scientific puppeteer. In showing — and allowing for — this sort of humbling immersion, which allows his project to continually upend and loop back on itself, The Rehearsal manages to be funny, frightening, and revealing. As a wild, recursive formal and human experiment, it’s the rare reality show that owns up to its fakery, and one we’d be better off having more of.

Compared with what comes later, The Rehearsal’s first episode offers a situation that’s streamlined, nearly elegant — and echoes the tighter scenes of the business consulting work which lent such variety on Fielder’s previous series, Nathan For You. After Fielder posts a craigslist ad inviting people to broach subjects to him they’ve long been avoiding, Kor Skeete, a schoolteacher in his 50s, reaches out with a secret he’s delayed confessing for years. An ardent trivia buff, Skeete’s lied to his group of regular teammates since they came together, claiming to have a master’s degree since a moment in which he was just wrapping up his bachelor’s. Though a comically minor slight at a glance (and even on closer inspection), the lie’s haunted him for years; when he hunts for jobs, discusses his career, or simply competes alongside his friends, the deception and his related anxieties have left him isolated and fretful.

The solution Fielder proposes — in a conversation he’s extensively rehearsed his way through himself — is for Skeete to practice the confession and the surrounding conversation in all their imagined variations, ad nauseum. This fundamentally neurotic exercise cuts to the heart of those viewers likewise afflicted, and sees Fielder and Skeete working together to game out each path they could see the designated evening taking. Plotting out the night from an elaborate set painstakingly modeled off the trivia group’s go-to dive, the pair work through word choice, physical gestures, food and drink orders, and more besides. But within this scenario, Fielder and Skeete are not equal partners; the former works to tweak different variables, greasing the wheels behind the scenes to support their desired outcome. While working to cultivate a sense of trust — nominally in pursuit of Skeete’s ultimate success and mental well-being — Fielder engages in manipulations of the scene that extend from his fundamental premise, as well as some sense of hubris. The Rehearsal not only imagines that his subjects need help and coaching to work through whatever ails them, but confronts, too, the egocentric notion that Fielder’s the best-suited person to aid them.

By the second episode the stakes get higher as Fielder finds himself working with Angela, a woman dreaming of raising a child on her own terms, from the confines of a sort of rural homestead. For her (and us, and his own project) Fielder finds a house and plot of land, and brings in a rotating company of child and teenage actors to simulate the life cycle of a growing boy. These performers (including some artificial ones) swap in over union-regulated shifts, each going by the name Adam as they embody the personage of Angela’s imagined child. Through them, she experiences tantrums, celebrates holidays, and negotiates conflicts (and not always smoothly). But in the beginning she does so alone, as a single mother — not the dream she’d long been hoping for, or the future she’d imagined.

Responding to this and pursuing authenticity through his deeply fake re-creation, Fielder attempts to orchestrate something like the life she’d aim for as a parent — though with plenty of attendant challenges. This involvement brings him to a place that’s increasingly intimate though firmly aromantic, entwining his manipulation of her artificial circumstances in the creation of a “fake family” with her and the various emotional experiences of each “Adam.” Chasing something like reality on Angela’s behalf, Fielder brings on actors, broaches problems, and tweaks variables in ways that range from manufacturing seasons via special effects to manipulating the family’s experience of aging and time, taking on a comically eerie role.

Amid all this, the show takes time – kind of inevitably — to reflect on the strangeness of its own production. Sculpting other people’s experiences as one might a diorama, Fielder, in pursuing a half-idealized, half-“realistic” version of the same, allows his focus to gradually sharpen around his own outsized, almost godlike role in their own lives. “I was noticing the more extreme my method became the more these actors seemed to respect me,” he remarks at an acting workshop he founds mid-season to recruit secondary players, highlighting the absurd but perversely logical extremes of his artistic enterprise. Increasing layers of circuitous theatrics lie at the heart of his efforts to get at something logistically accurate. All the same, at some level he’s left to cross his fingers that his labors can conjure something emotionally credible, much less felt as real.

In attempting to assume control, accounting for every contingency, he encounters even more than he could consider beforehand as obstacles — making The Rehearsal at some core level an overwhelming expression of the impossibility of his efforts. But artistic labor often peaks when reckoning with the impossible for the ways it invites the unexpected, given the emotional and comic jolts that so often brings about. And so by chasing after a fake existence with rigor, imagination, and increasingly frequent self-reflection, Fielder may be playing God — but he’s also doing sincere, human, and utterly essential work.

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