Last summer Nathan Fielder’s new TV show The Rehearsal premiered on HBO. This was Fielder’s first television program since his Comedy Central show Nathan For You aired its final season in 2017, and fans of his unique blend of reality TV tropes and cringe comedy were eager to see what he would come up with next. I counted myself among them: I had found Nathan For You deliriously funny, in part due to Fielder’s deadpan delivery of his absurd business schemes but mostly because of the sometimes shocking moments of vulnerability and self-disclosure that he was able to elicit from the show’s participants.
My anticipation of Fielder’s TV return was marred by the announcement (just one week before The Rehearsal’s premiere) that Adult Swim would not be renewing Joe Pera Talks With You. JPTWY is a very different show from Nathan For You, but there are some similarities in the sense that Joe Pera also plays a comedic character that shares his real life name (although Pera’s TV persona comes with a complete fictional backstory and life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), and that both shows focus on sincere and well-meaning hosts engaging with aspects of everyday life in such a way that hijinks ensue. But the Joe Pera show featured a much more subdued tone overall, simultaneously feeling more grounded in reality but also like a fleshed out fantasy world. JPTWY was go-to comfort media for me as it offered an earnest and affirming exploration of small town life that was often as heartwarming as it was hilarious (it could easily be described with the overused and memeified term “wholesome”). It was a unique (and uniquely comforting) show. I realize that the Adult Swim format of 11-minute episodes makes it difficult to draw direct comparisons with other TV programs, but for what it was I think JPTWY achieved a fully realized and cohesive artistic expression across its three seasons.
The airing of The Rehearsal generated significant chatter, and the internet was quickly inundated with “Nathan Fielder discourse.” Think-pieces and editorials analyzed the show but much of the focus centered on the psychology of Fielder himself, describing him as a “complicated, socially awkward man” or a vain obsessive whose “disingenuous self-deprecation” belies his naked ambition. Fielder featured in magazine profiles and psychologists weighed in on the emotional implications of the show’s format. The Rehearsal was assessed through a myriad of conceptual lenses including Kabbalistic cosmology, Martin Buber’s philosophy, and experiences of autism (I have often seen Fielder’s persona and previous show discussed through the lens of neurodiverse experience, but as far as I am aware Fielder has never addressed these interpretations). Critics questioned the correct categorization of this media misfit, and acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris considered the inherently messy ethical complications of documentary filmmaking.
So was all this discussion warranted? The Rehearsal was admittedly fascinating, raising the bar set by Nathan For You both in terms of production value and the stakes it set out to engage with (with people’s lives purportedly on the line rather than just their business livelihoods). The first episode delivered on the premise of “helping people prepare for critical moments in their lives” and ended with a staccato of punchlines and poignant emotional beats. The rest of the episodes felt like an ongoing attempt to salvage a season of TV from the compromises that the production had to make due to the pandemic. I got the sense that the original plan was to have all the episodes follow the format of that first show, with self-contained rehearsals focused on a single person’s personal problem. The move to the Oregon farmhouse in the second episode is presented as part of Angela’s rehearsal for parenthood, but it seems like a strategic move to establish a COVID bubble outside of a major population center where pandemic precautionary measures could be more easily managed (with the added benefit of a completely controlled production environment where project participants can be recorded non-stop).
The seemingly endless discourse around Nathan Fielder and The Rehearsal prompted me to both seek out and revisit examples of other media that shared similar interests in troubling distinctions between artifice and authenticity. The Rehearsal sparked countless comparisons to Synecdoche, New York (especially the first episode’s centerpiece of building an exact replica of a Brooklyn bar on a New York soundstage). I could understand the comparisons and numerous points of similarity, but despite my appreciation for what Charlie Kaufman accomplished with that film it’s not one that I feel inclined to return to (I find it to be a relentlessly dire and depressing movie, and while I understand that’s partly the point it’s not an experience I really want to subject myself to…the last time I watched Synecdoche was several years ago and I only made it about ten minutes in before stopping due to the overwhelming anxiety it was producing in me).
Another film that drew Rehearsal comparisons early on was Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up. The only Kiarostami film I’d seen was Taste of Cherry, which I thought was wonderful. It also produced one of my greatest disagreements with Roger Ebert. I typically enjoy Ebert’s film criticism, and I have a lot of appreciation for what he (along with Gene Siskel) contributed to popular U.S. film culture. But in his review for Taste of Cherry, Ebert criticized the film for not explaining why the taxi driver protagonist was looking to end his life, his reason for wanting to die. This seemed like an egregious example of missing the point to me, because I felt the film was about the search for a reason to live. Taste of Cherry famously ends with a brief fourth-wall-breaking scene shot on video that gives a behind the scenes look at the film production. I’ve never understood the purpose of this final shot or its relation to the overall film (Ebert thought it was intended to grant the audience some emotional relief from the harrowing climax, a way of saying “See, it was all make believe!” so that folks could leave the theater not feeling completely miserable). But my confusion about the enigmatic ending didn’t diminish the power of the whole experience.
Close-Up is classified as a docufiction or metafictional movie. It is based on the real-life trial of a man who impersonated an Iranian filmmaker and gained the confidence of a family who thought they would be starring in his upcoming film. In retelling the narrative of the case, Kiarostami had the actual people involved portray themselves in the reenactments. The recreations are interspersed with conversations between the participants and the filmmaker. The result is a disorienting hybrid between documentary and narrative film, and the filmmaking intrigue at the center of the case adds an additional component to consideration of media artifice influencing real life. I didn’t find it nearly as affecting as Taste of Cherry, and I think that having knowledge about the real life Iranian backstory is necessary context for getting the most out of the movie, but it is a fascinating filmmaking exercise and in the 2022 Sight and Sound poll Close-Up was ranked among the 20 greatest films of all time.
Another film that I sought out due to the Rehearsal discourse was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by filmmaking pioneer William Greaves. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm was filmed in 1968 as an experimental documentary: actors are filmed rehearsing a scene in Central Park; a second film crew documents the first crew who are filming the actors; and a third crew films both of the first crews along with any passerby or emergent happenings around the production. At a certain point crew members started filming their own after-hours conversation where they debated about the purpose of what they were doing and trying to decipher what Greaves is really going for; these conversations are themselves included in the final film. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a compelling and captivating time capsule of late 60’s New York as well as that period’s artistic avant garde spirit. This was also my introduction to Greaves, who’s work I’m glad to finally be aware. I also watched Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½ which reunited two of the actors from the original project 35 years later. They stage further rehearsals continuing the narrative of original characters, and also bring back a sort of acting coach who leads emotionally charged improvisation exercises. These rehearsal sessions lead to some discomforting interactions where it’s unclear whether the outbursts are occurring “in character” or between the individuals involved.
As The Rehearsal continued to air and I followed reactions online, I was surprised by how many people treated the “Nathan Fielder” on the screen as a 1-to-1 representation of Nathan Fielder the producer. The on-screen Nathan is clearly a persona avatar of its creator, and besides the obvious fact that the real life Fielder is a creator-writer-producer of the show and so is definitely “in on the joke,” the distinction between Nathan the creator and “Nathan” the character is most evident in how funny the character is. Nathan’s voiceover narration (both in The Rehearsal and Nathan For You) is not only engineered for maximum ironic juxtaposition with what is appearing on screen, but is also precision-crafted to be devoid of any genuine insight into what is transpiring or human life in general (compare this to the narration on the aforementioned Joe Pera show, which uses the clearly fictional comedic framework to routinely offer up genuine insight into human affairs).
The “Nathan” character is the part of Fielder’s schtick that has aged most poorly for me personally. Before The Rehearsal premiered I re-watched Nathan For You, and for the most part I found the show just as hilarious as I remembered it. But what I had much less patience for this time around was the increasing prevalence of “Nathan” as a character with an emotional arc that grows in prominence as the series goes on. The latter episodes give ever greater attention to “Nathan”’s attempts to forge interpersonal connections and maybe even find love. It was these moments and plot threads that I found the cringiest upon rewatch (as opposed to the show’s foundation of cringe comedy that I can still enjoy). Not only is this manufactured character arc responsible for some of the most uncomfortable interactions between Nathan and the participants, but precisely because it is manufactured it smacks of a phoniness (as well as a pandering smugness) that takes me right out of the show.
Which brings me to the season finale of The Rehearsal. The culminating episode centers around the question of what kind of long term effects this TV project might have on its participants. Throughout the season Nathan framed the stakes as dire: if a rehearsal goes wrong, it could ruin someone’s life. The final episode grounds these stakes in the experience of one participant in particular: a six-year-old boy who was one of many child actors portraying Nathan’s “son” throughout the rehearsal. The boy doesn’t have a father figure in his real life, and as the show comes to an end he’s experiencing distress at having to say goodbye to his “pretend daddy.”
The final episode got some pushback from viewers and critics who were unnerved at the prospect that a child had undergone emotional trauma as part of a comedy show. It’s an admittedly sticky situation, and I understand why people found it difficult. I had several problems with the episode, starting with the weight of the emotional stakes. As with the heightening of Nathan’s emotional stakes on Nathan For You, I find it more difficult to engage with the show when the stakes are amped up to such a serious (and potentially real-life affecting) level. Consider the first Rehearsal episode, when the relatively low stakes of Kor making a confession to his friend made for gut wrenching suspense. And in light of my earlier hypotheses about how the show may have pivoted to account for the pandemic restrictions, the stakes of the last episode seems like exploiting the mental and emotional wellbeing of a child in a desperate attempt to engineer a compelling conclusion to the season.
But once again, it was the prominence of the “Nathan” character that I found particularly difficult to stomach. In the concluding scene, Nathan roleplays a scene with a nine-year-old child actor where they are portraying the distressed child’s mother and the boy himself, respectively. Having reflected on the implications that his rehearsal may have had for the participants, and roleplayed the position of a mother who allowed her child to take part in the show, Nathan achieves an introspective understanding that perhaps it was a mistake to let children participate, and that the entire rehearsal project itself may have been well-intentioned but ultimately misguided endeavor. It seems like a genuine reflection on some of the inherently problematic aspects of such an entertainment experiment, and consideration of the creator’s complicity. But in the final moments, Nathan refers to himself as the child’s father, prompting his juvenile scene partner to break character by interjecting: “Wait, aren’t you supposed to be my mom?” After a beat, with tears welling in his eyes and his neck straining with visible intensity, Nathan replies: “No. I’m your dad.” It’s the reemergence of the “Nathan” character from Nathan For You, who uses the tools afforded by his TV position to fulfill his desperate need for human connection. And it remains the least funny part of the joke. It’s a clearly calculated moment designed to put a button on the episode. In the end, it is Nathan’s disingenuousness that makes it so distasteful.