In “Finding Frances,” the instant-classic series finale of his Comedy Central show Nathan For You, Nathan Fielder attempts to help Bill, an old man who had appeared on an earlier episode, track down a long-lost love. At one point, Fielder hires an actress to role-play as Frances, to help Bill practice for the potential reunion. And as the search for the real Frances stagnates, Fielder begins to wonder about the true nature of what he’s been filming. He narrates, “The more we kept shooting things, the harder it was to tell where the show ended and life began.”
Fielder’s long-awaited follow-up project, the HBO docu-comedy The Rehearsal, takes those ideas from “Finding Frances” and turns them into a whole series — one that is more audacious and thoughtful, and at times funnier, than Nathan For You.
On Nathan For You, Fielder purported to help small businesses attract more customers with ill-conceived marketing schemes. Here, the target is smaller but more emotional, and his attempted solution far more complicated: Strangers come to Fielder with personal situations they fear they are not ready for, and he helps them prepare by staging elaborate rehearsals of the event. In the premiere, for instance, a teacher is afraid to tell the members of his bar trivia team that he’s been lying to them for years about his level of education, while much of the season involves Fielder creating a simulation of parenthood — using real children, growing in age every few days — for Angela, a single woman uncertain if she should have kids.
The execution of these rehearsals goes far beyond anything Fielder did in “Finding Frances” — as much a reflection of HBO budgets versus Comedy Central’s as it is of Fielder’s growing ambitions. He builds an exact, working replica of the bar where the teacher intends to confess to a trivia-team member, so that the teacher can practice. And when he fears that the two old friends will be distracted if they do poorly in the trivia challenge on the night of their heart-to-heart, Fielder hustles his way into acquiring the answers and then incepting them into the teacher while seeming to make small talk on walks through New York. To comply with child labor laws, the parenting simulation involves babies, and then toddlers, being switched out every few hours while Angela’s back is turned. (Because young children can’t work at night at all, a remote-controlled robot sleeps in the crib, to be woken by someone watching a real baby on a monitor whenever the real baby cries in the night. This solution is as ridiculous and difficult to execute as it sounds.)
The sheer scale and absurdity of each project is hilarious in and of itself. When Fielder gets bored during the prolonged fake-parenting rehearsal in Oregon, he has the bar set transported across the country so he can hang out there, and later turns it into a genuine business. Nathan and Angela discuss Christmas versus Chanukah while the house is surrounded by snow; eventually, the camera pulls back to reveal it’s man-made snow, and only on that property. (“It turns out winter is very expensive to maintain,” he admits to us.) To make sure he doesn’t run out of actors for all these rehearsals, Nathan opens up an acting school in L.A. to teach “The Fielder Method,” and his attempts to understand the struggles of one of his students recall the old joke about a man who believes the Earth is resting on a stack of turtles going all the way down. Only in this case, all the turtles are Nathan.
One of the ongoing sources of humor on Nathan For You was the naked desperation of Fielder — or, at least, of his lonely onscreen persona — to befriend his subjects, and the sheer awkwardness of his attempts to do so. Between that aspect and the way that Fielder could do more harm than good for these real people and their real businesses, that show tended to set off my secondhand-sympathy alarms, making it something I could admire while only occasionally being able to sit through a full episode(*).
(*) The same has often held true for me and the work of Albert Brooks, whose 1979 film Real Life is one of several clear inspirations for The Rehearsal.
The Rehearsal elevates this struggle into a key part of the text. In the very first scene, Nathan narrates, “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable.” We soon find that he participates in his own rehearsals to prepare for dealing with the subjects of the show — with actors playing the subjects and Nathan (usually) playing himself — sometimes trying out different avenues of small talk, sometimes bracing himself for a difficult conversation he doesn’t know how to have. Is this the real Fielder working through his issues or just his onscreen persona of “Nathan?” As was the case with “Finding Frances,” it’s hard to figure out where the line between the two exists; in one episode, Fielder’s parents visit the production and offer very strong opinions about how hard their son works to avoid confrontation, no matter the personal cost, in ways that clearly back up how we’ve seen him behave to this point.
But whether that part is real or performative, the idea that one Nathan or the other is using The Rehearsal to improve his own life, as well as that of each subject, makes the series both gentler to watch and more empathetic and poignant as a whole. The comedy doesn’t go away just because the concept is so strange, and the Fielder Method in every sense is so ludicrous. But the rehearsals elicit genuine feelings from many of the participants in ways that can feel as surprising as they are cathartic. And the structure of the season — which weaves standalone rehearsal stories within the larger arc about Angela — only adds to the air of surreality that surrounds the entire series.
When Angela begins to worry that the show is mocking her, Nathan argues, “No one’s the joke! The situations are funny, but interesting, too!” Despite the massive amounts of artifice featured throughout the production, this is true. Even Fielder is only vaguely the joke this time around, which makes the overall comedy funnier and the more serious parts that much richer.
“I was starting to wonder,” Fielder observes at one point, “how I could so easily create feelings inside other people when I couldn’t do it for myself.” Whether this is a real struggle for Nathan Fielder or just something he’s rehearsing for the sake of his new television show, The Rehearsal will create many feelings inside anyone watching it, starting with vast amusement and perhaps ranging all the way to tears, even at the fakest parts. This is a great one.
The Rehearsal premieres July 15 on HBO, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen five of the season’s six episodes.