The Washington Post

Fielder’s ‘The Rehearsal’ is a prank show like no other


The prepostero­usly elaborate prank show is Nathan Fielder’s best known canvas. The monotone cult comedian is probably most famous for “Dumb Starbucks,” a pop-up coffee shop that accidental­ly went viral in 2014 during the making of an episode of his Comedy Central series “Nathan for You.” By selling “Dumb Espresso” and CDS of “Dumb Norah Jones Duets,” Fielder, playing a version of himself as a crackpot smallbusin­ess consultant, planned to draw customers through the chain’s familiar branding while avoiding legal liability by declaring the store a work of parody. (The coffee was reportedly “horrible.”)

But for most of “Nathan for You’s” four seasons, the last of which aired in 2017, Fielder mounted convoluted stunts within struggling mom-and-pop shops around Los Angeles under the guise of drumming up sales. In a Season 2 episode, for instance, he fakes a film shoot with a Johnny Depp impersonat­or in a Hollywood souvenir store to rouse the curiosity of tourists and trick them into buying knickknack­s as extras in the “movie” — a venture that somehow ends with producing an actual short (again, to sidestep legal trouble) and debuting it at a local film festival created for that purpose.

Fielder returns with “The Rehearsal,” a somber, introspect­ive and highly mannered take on the prank show — Comedy Central meets Charlie Kaufman. Airing

in six serialized chapters on HBO, it’s his version of the sad, largely laugh-free, sometimes pace-challenged prestige comedies that have proliferat­ed in recent years. “Nathan for You” was zippy, and loath to waste a minute, especially when it could reveal a charming or dumbfoundi­ng human foible. “The Rehearsal” is more fanciful, and the upgrade to an HBO budget is conspicuou­s. But because of its grayer mood and sober-minded ambitions, the strains to reach insight or profundity are also more apparent.

“The Rehearsal” opens with a mostly stand-alone (and overlong) installmen­t that serves as the series’s prologue. “Nathan,” in both voice-over and director guise, explains the show’s conceit to its first participan­t, Kor, a middle-aged teacher who’s been lying to his pub trivia teammates about having a graduate degree. As an initial step, the guilt-ridden Kor wants to come clean to the person he thinks will react most badly: Tricia, his friend of nearly 20 years. Socially awkward himself, Nathan intends to help those like him by hiring an actor to play Tricia so that Kor can practice his confession seemingly dozens of times, with the fake Tricia varying her responses so he can anticipate as many scenarios as possible. Improbably, Kor never displays impatience at having to repeat the simulacra so many times.

Because this is Fielder’s show, he makes the (dryly amusing) journey from Point A to Point B as tortuous and expensive as possible, including re-creations of Kor’s apartment and regular bar on a set. Along the way, we become acquainted with the genuine weirdo that is Kor, but Fielder’s desire to ultimately pull the rug from under the participan­ts diminishes the poignancy that he works to achieve.

The next four episodes revolve around Angela, a 40-something single woman who isn’t sure whether she wants to become a mother. She’s open to the possibilit­y only if she were to do so with a partner and in a country mansion where she can enforce traditiona­l gender roles. Her social conservati­sm eventually leads to a derailment of the experiment; imperfect casting may be to blame here, especially in Angela’s case. But until then, it’s fun to marvel at the absurd lengths to which Nathan constructs a “rehearsal” of parenthood for Angela. Swapping out baby actors every four hours (the maximum amount of time they’re allowed to work) so she can experience what it’s like to care for a child around-the-clock is only the starting point. (I’d happily watch a companion web series about the parents who hand over their infant to a TV crew so a stranger with possibly no child-care experience can pretend for a week that their child is hers.)

Art-house documentar­y buffs might recognize the project-salvaging improvisat­ions that Fielder employs when met with an increasing­ly uncooperat­ive subject. As it does with the first installmen­t, the show piles on doubles and doubles of doubles, recalling “Synecdoche, New York,” the 2008 Kaufman film in which actors rehearsing for a play are played by other actors so they can better observe their own process. Fielder’s series isn’t so labyrinthi­ne, making several wayward pivots instead, with a glum voice-over and melancholy piano music that, in the five episodes that HBO provided, try their best to provide an emotional structure and resonance to the proceeding­s as they veer off course. But if the result is too often forced and airless, at least Fielder can boast once again that he’s created another singular series that doesn’t resemble anything else on television.

 ?? ALLYSON RIGGS/HBO ?? Nathan Fielder, center, is the cult comedian behind Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You” and now HBO’S “The Rehearsal,” which offers a more somber, introspect­ive take on the prank show format.
ALLYSON RIGGS/HBO Nathan Fielder, center, is the cult comedian behind Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You” and now HBO’S “The Rehearsal,” which offers a more somber, introspect­ive take on the prank show format.

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