Fielder central mystery of new social experiment ‘Rehearsal’
Nathan Fielder, whose four-season series “Nathan for You” saw him “aiding” struggling small businesses with strange promotional ideas, is back. “The Rehearsal” takes off from the idea that critical events can be prepared for, that “if you plan for every variable, a happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance.” Like the earlier show, and the myriad reality shows it half-mimics, it is presented as a sort of social experiment, and in that it puts real people into artificial situations in order to elicit real reactions, even feelings, in some cracked way it is.
As in “Nathan for You,” part of the joke is the length to which Fielder will go to achieve his ends, the elaborate, often expensive stratagems he employs, requiring the witting or unwitting participation of many hands. We are sometimes going to laugh at his subjects, at the amazing things people will agree to or the yards of wool that can be pulled over their eyes. But Fielder — who narrates and appears on camera and is personally, sometimes deeply involved in each project — is the implicit subject of his work.
Though it evolves into a serial, the six-episode series begins with a standalone episode in which Fielder helps a Brooklyn man named Core Skeet — who has responded to a Craigslist ad reading
“TV Opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding” — break the news to a friend that he has been lying about having an advanced degree. It’s a scheme that includes rehearsals in an exact
replica of the bar where they participate in trivia nights, and not only hiring an actor to portray Skeet’s friend but also arranging for them to meet, under false pretenses, so that the faux friend may more closely approximate the original. Subsequently, the action moves to rural Oregon, where Angela (no last name given) is trying to decide about adopting a child; Fielder’s proposal is to employ an army of child actors in “a round-theclock simulation of parenthood, to raise a child from 0 to 18 over the course of two months.” This saga, which will involve Fielder intimately, continues through the rest of the series.
Like more conventional reality TV, Fielder’s shows call up questions of truth and fiction, of whether, or to what degree, he’s committed to the experiment as opposed to being committed to the bit. Notwithstanding the new series’ premise, that everything can be accounted for, he is constantly called upon to adjust his plans to fit unforeseen circumstances and to ensure he’ll come out with some sort of story.
Even if he appears to be part of the experiment, as here, he’s in control of the
experiment, participating in scenes he’s also directing. Situations are carefully engineered, sometimes transparently, but often without his subjects’ knowledge; that he lies, or encourages others to lie, is intrinsic to his method. He may finally tell the truth for supposedly moral reasons. The premise and progress of “The Rehearsal” require him to be forthcoming to some degree — his subjects are also in a sense his collaborators — but we don’t know what we aren’t shown, and no one can say how honest the seemingly heartfelt sentiments he expresses along the way are.
For all the questions it raises about itself, Fielder’s work is reliably fascinating, if not necessarily amusing; it is usually presented as comedy, but here it’s comedy of a particularly melancholic sort.
In “The Rehearsal,” which sometimes feels like its own critique, he’s accused of turning people into jokes. “No one’s the joke,” he answers. “The situations are funny, but interesting too.” That seems a fair assessment of his aims, and often of his accomplishments.
How to watch: HBO and HBO Max