Dirt: Nathan Fielder's RPG
Where does The Rehearsal end?
Terry Nguyen, Dirt’s staff senior writer, on the questionable purpose of reenacting reality.
Reality is a nesting doll of possibilities in HBO’s The Rehearsal. What if you could prepare for major life events through an elaborate simulation, where every course of action could be anticipated, analyzed, and accounted for? It’s a ludicrous premise, and the Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder, like any skilled magician, doesn’t presume that his audience is willing to suspend their disbelief. Discomfort blurs into comedy into moral profundity. By the show’s sixth and final episode, which aired last Friday, we’re left disoriented, wondering if what we witnessed was genius, genuine, or an ostentatious grift.
Armed with a generous network budget, Fielder crafts meticulous, true-to-life sets and hires paid actors to inhabit these copycat scenes, a real-life version of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. He builds a replica of a Brooklyn bar where his first subject, Kor, plays trivia, so Kor can rehearse a confession to his trivia teammates. Two episodes later, he constructs a Raising Cane’s restaurant for another participant, Patrick, who’s preparing to ask his brother for a share of the family inheritance. The season’s most ambitious project, however, simulates an immersive, round-the-clock motherhood experience for Angela, a single Christian woman in her 40s. She is moved to a stage-set home in rural Oregon with an on-demand cast of child actors to play her fake son, Adam.
The show initially presents itself as a situational problem-solving docu-comedy, in the vein of Fielder’s Comedy Central project Nathan for You. That series saw Fielder pose as a zany consultant, pitching sensationalist strategies to struggling Los Angeles business owners. But The Rehearsal forgoes these single-episode storylines soon after the premiere to zoom into Angela’s arc. As the operation’s mastermind, Fielder expands his role by inserting himself into Angela’s rehearsal to co-parent Adam. (There’s a distinction to be made here between Fielder the director and Nathan the character; I’ll refer to this on-screen persona as “Nathan.” Nathan is a proxy for Fielder to orchestrate his broader vision of the show. Even so, the boundaries between the two overlap.)
After the third episode, no new rehearsals are staged for participants to enact future events. Instead, the reenactments are deployed as tools to assess Nathan’s past on a whim. He casts an actor to play Fake Nathan, while he assumes the identity of other minor characters, including a student in his Fielder method-acting class and the mother of a child actor cast to play Adam. Actors are brought in to portray real people, and then those actors are played by other actors in turn. It’s a dizzying, metafictional method of refracting reality. Nathan functions almost as a stand-in for the audience, confronting questions about faith, control, consent, and empathy. Through this exercise, Nathan hopes to glean a morsel of truth in embodying other characters, who offer him — and by extension us, the viewers — an alternate perspective on The Rehearsal’s reality.
As Nathan descends further and further down a rehearsal rabbit hole of his own making, the viewer is prompted to interrogate the terms of reality presented on-screen. Are the subjects real people or actors? How much does Fielder reveal to them? How scripted are the scenes? Can such elaborate artifice evoke real emotion from the participants, actors, and even Nathan himself?
“Every now and then, there are these glimmers — these moments where you forget and you just feel like a family,” Nathan says in one voiceover. “That’s when you know a rehearsal is working.”
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The audience may instinctively understand that reality-based media, or unscripted content that features people as themselves, is somehow manipulated behind the scenes. A version of reality is created through framing, editing, and narrative construction. Seasoned reality TV viewers tend to be hyper-attuned to how producers manifest drama by subtly manipulating characters and staging scenarios. There is no such meddling blueprint for The Rehearsal, which seems to encourage even more speculation.
As elusive as the show’s reality is, viewers seem eager to seek out its essence. Social media has been abuzz with fan theories about the logistics of the show and its participants — the extent of people’s consent; the accuracy of their portrayal; the sequential order of filming; the locations. But however thoroughly viewers might scour the internet and bother attention-seeking participants for details, Fielder has woven an impenetrable web of mystique about his motives, aided with a stack of non-disclosure agreements.
For most of the show, The Rehearsal’s absurdist simulations fail to overtake reality. Its subjects don’t mistake the fake for the real because “the seams are always showing,” as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk observed of the grocery store sticker left on a “harvested” bell pepper. Yet there is comfort in the certainty of playing pretend, a theme that Fielder masterfully unravels in the finale when the show tip-toes into hyperreal territory. A child actor named Remy, who is raised by a single mom, struggles to acknowledge that Nathan is only his “pretend daddy.” We see Fielder, the director, grappling with the psychological impact of his experiment on a six-year-old. He tries to comfort Remy. He promises that they’ll see each other again.
“Everything about this rehearsal felt so trivial now,” Nathan says, before staging another set of rehearsals to dissect his interactions with Remy. Here we go again, I thought. But there’s a point to his neverending excavation of reality. The season’s final scene shows Nathan playing Remy’s mom to a Remy stand-in, and Nathan releases a Freudian slip at the end of a poignant speech to his fake son. “Because I’m your dad,” he says. “Wait, I thought you were my mom,” responds the Remy stand-in, confused. Seconds pass. A flurry of emotions crosses Nathan’s face: first shock, then uncertainty, and finally, sinister clarity. “No,” he declares. “I’m your dad.”
Here, Fielder manages to execute a profound sleight-of-hand, reorienting the show’s premise from a self-help punchline to a philosophical inquiry. Is Nathan losing his grip on reality? More questions are left unanswered than resolved. (The show was renewed for a second season on Thursday.) The only sure thing is: Nathan Fielder is in control. And as with any good magician, don’t expect him to reveal his secrets. — Terry Nguyen
The Dirt: Fake it ‘til you make it.
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