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Over four seasons and 32 episodes, Nathan Fielder’s Comedy Central series Nathan for You was able to gradually transition from wily, capitalism-skeptical, documentary-style pranks — urging a yogurt store to develop a poo-flavored special was the show’s first segment — to the poignancy of an aging Bill Gates impersonator seeking his lost love.
The show’s greatness, beyond its cringe-y hilarity, was in the evolution from jokey explorations of white privilege — Fielder’s secret weapon is the authority conveyed by his very unassuming, if entirely unqualified, Canadian manner — to something sadder and more universal.
Airdate: 11 p.m. Friday, July 15 (HBO)
Star: Nathan Fielder
Creator: Nathan Fielder
After a few years away, during which he only executive produced one of the best shows on TV (HBO’s How To With John Wilson), Fielder is back in front of the camera with The Rehearsal. The new HBO comedy picks up in some of those personal places Nathan for You left off, resulting in a show that isn’t always as funny as its predecessor, but captures a similar contemporary unease, has the potential for even greater emotional reach, and displays a level of ambition that’s as impressive as it is impressively silly.
The Rehearsal starts with Fielder’s own discomfort, as he admits that he often isn’t good at first impressions. But what if you could stage and restage any key moment or interaction over and over again in near-perfect detail until you get it right? Placing an ambiguous Craigslist ad — “TV Opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding?” — Fielder endeavors to help ordinary and ostensibly “real” (as in, unscripted) people prepare for those difficult conversations or life situations.
In the first episode of The Rehearsal, Fielder helps a bar trivia enthusiast confess to his teammates that he’d been lying about having an advanced degree. It’s a preparatory process — “precreations” instead of “recreations” — that includes multiple actors, an uncanny reproduction of their favorite neighborhood watering hole and deep introspection about trivia ethics. The episode, which runs 44 minutes (others are closer to a clean half-hour), features Fielder breaking down, either to the camera or via voiceover, the mechanics of a project that appears to have an impressive absence of budgetary restrictions. It isn’t very amusing, some of the procedural explanations are a little clunky and maybe you have to reach a little to find the desired themes — “trivia” representing the potential unknown, the thing Fielder is determined to eliminate — but you need the episode to set up what comes next.
The second installment introduces Angela, a 40something born-again Christian in Oregon who laments never having had the time or opportunity to have kids. To help her determine if now might be her moment, Fielder mounts a multi-week experiment requiring Angela to move to a rural farmhouse for an accelerated version of parenthood, with frequently replaced actors playing her child at different ages. It’s a big task — in addition to swapping out kids due to union restrictions, the production crew has to fabricate the changing of seasons — and although Fielder is able to mount other rehearsals simultaneously, he becomes increasingly involved in Angela’s rehearsal and how it relates to his own loneliness and struggles with maturation.
After the somewhat laborious first episode, which mostly generates admiring incredulity instead of the laughs and morbid social embarrassment produced by previous Fielder efforts, there’s a quick progression. The Rehearsal begins to find humor in the first Angela episode and then, by the fourth and fifth installments sent to critics (out of six), the show is locked in, delivering the meta twistiness, deadpan snark and stealthy infusion of heart that fans expect from Fielder. It also provokes a consistent desire to curl up in a corner, rocking back and forth at the alienation of humanity circa 2022.
Nobody in The Rehearsal actually mentions COVID-19 aloud, but it’s the resonant backdrop to the entire series, which is, in its way, a response to two-plus years in which the most basic aspects of human synergy have become more complicated and many of our worlds more isolated and contained. Fielder, on HBO’s dime, has created a series of individualized bubbles in which people can try over and over again to make sure that every extrusion from those bubbles is done safely.
The show doesn’t need to be COVID-adjacent, mind you. The Rehearsal follows Nathan for You and How To With John Wilson and non-Fielder productions like Joe Pera Talks with You and Review as shows imbued with a growing recognition that we live in an age in which we seek expertise, even from non-experts, on how to navigate even the most banal of predicaments because normal relations are at a premium. (Another comparison I might make would be to The Joe Schmo Show — think The Joe HBO Show — only without the overt push for comedy from the actors around the real person at its center.)
Of course, a show like Review is thoroughly scripted in contrast to the Fielder programs, in which suspending disbelief as to the reality or lack thereof is nearly required. Maybe The Rehearsal is easier to watch and to accept than some of the more excruciating Nathan for You installments because its contrivances are front-and-center (and there isn’t the same concern that Fielder could ruin a normal person’s business). Anybody working with Fielder here had the opportunity to Google him, and he even mentions his earlier show to several people. That means that the whole thing is less of a hidden-camera joke on the participants. Amid the normal droll observations that punctuate Fielder’s voiceovers, there are increasing attempts to explain (and over-explain) not just each episode’s general undercurrent, but also the reasons he’s being driven to adapt and expand his on-camera participation.
The Rehearsal is more contrived than Nathan for You at every turn, and yet somehow it feels more real — a pleasant surprise given that Nathan for You gags like Dumb Starbucks attracted headlines even outside of the show. The Rehearsal is the closest television has come to a reality format that could believably serve as a gateway to The Truman Show, which makes it intriguingly bizarre, stealthily provocative and quietly gutting. I want to see where it goes from here.
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