“What on earth was I doing?” the comedian Nathan Fielder asks in the sixth and final episode of his new HBO series—but to any moderately sane viewer the question will have occurred much earlier. The Rehearsal is a truly strange show, a nesting doll of artifice and anxiety, comedy and disorientation and dread, wrapped in the thin skin of reality TV.
The premise is deceptively simple. The show’s participants—found, it seems, via a gnomic Craigslist post that read, “TV Opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding?”—are all anticipating some fraught encounter or experience. Fielder helps them prepare for it. He builds a set, hires actors to play the other people involved, and coaches his subjects through approaches, contingency plans, and worst-case scenarios, proliferating flowcharts of possibility and prediction. You’ll know exactly what to say and do, he promises: “No surprises.”
The first episode focuses on a man named Kor Skeete, who is devoted to playing bar trivia but has been lying to his teammates about having a master’s degree. The deception has been bothering him for years, but he is worried about how one particular teammate, Tricia, will react if he comes clean. Fielder is right there with him, approaching the Tricia Question with the poker-faced seriousness of a very expensive consultant.
Kor and Fielder both have stilted, slightly robotic on-screen presences. Kor speaks with the pedantic overenunciation of a schoolteacher, which he is, and Fielder’s persona, honed over several previous TV shows, combines unblinking obliviousness with an effortful, Zuckerbergian pseudowarmth. As the two of them discuss Fielder’s proposal, it begins to sound almost logical. Why not try to eliminate the risks, if something is important to you? Wouldn’t it be more irrational to just worry and do nothing, or to wing it and let any number of things go wrong?
As Fielder points out to Kor, this project could be seen as a natural offshoot of Nathan for You (2013–2017), his previous show, in which he posed as a business expert and convinced small-business owners to try bizarre ideas to increase profits: introducing feces as a flavor at a frozen-yogurt shop; renaming a café Dumb Starbucks under the protection, supposedly, of parody law. (This involved Fielder and the owner forming a parody band together, to establish their bona fides as a comedy duo.) The collision between Fielder’s deadpan nonsense and the spontaneous reactions of the real people he ropes into his schemes results in a wild, unique form of cringe comedy—and also made the production of the show a challenge. Fielder and his writers tried to map out in advance what they thought participants would do, and, as Fielder tells Kor, “I became really good at predicting how people would act in a future situation.” What he is offering, then, is a particularly modern gift: the opportunity to produce a moment of your life as if it were a TV show, as “real” and as scripted as any episode of Survivor.
The trap doors start opening almost immediately. Fielder tells Kor, in effect, that he is not just the creator of The Rehearsal; he is also its first client. The discussion they are having has itself been scripted in advance, “rehearsed…dozens of times.” Fielder has already hired an actor to play Kor, already built a full-scale mockup of Kor’s apartment to rehearse in—employees of the show pretended to work for the gas company to gain access to his home several weeks earlier, and photographed and measured every room. As he speaks, we are shown the first of what will be many disorienting cuts between reality and rehearsal: Fielder tries out icebreakers with the ersatz Kor, who is just different enough—a little wirier, a little more soft-spoken—to be uncanny, then settles on the ones we heard him use on the real Kor a moment ago.
We are also shown, over the course of the episode, that Fielder’s manipulations are more extensive than he ever reveals to Kor. He has the two of them go swimming, for instance, so that “the mutual disclosure of personal information in a heated pool” will build their rapport and help convince Kor to continue to participate in the show. It works, and after Kor tells him that he considers the end of his marriage “one of the bigger failures of my life,” an old man enters the pool, cutting off the conversation just as Fielder, seemingly, is about to say something about his own divorce. Fielder’s voice-over tells us that he arranged this interruption in advance: “I didn’t want to go too deep into my private life.” This and similar scenes are played for laughs, but not entirely. There is an unpleasant aftertaste, a little pinprick of unease.
The rehearsal itself goes well beyond any plausible utility. Kor and Fielder decide that the conversation with Tricia will take place during a trivia night at a Brooklyn bar called the Alligator Lounge, so Fielder commissions a maniacally detailed replica of that bar inside a nearby warehouse, complete with precise recreations of the ripped upholstery of individual bar stools, correctly crooked art on the walls, and a simulated pizza oven, behind which an assistant waits to replace uncooked dough with real pizzas brought in from outside. He hires dozens of extras to play the other patrons, and sets up a fake interview with the unsuspecting Tricia so the actress playing her can study her mannerisms up close. They leave nothing to chance: if Kor’s preferred table isn’t available, he is to convince the people there to move by telling them his grandmother has just died of brain cancer. (Kor actually ends up doing this in the real bar. “Same,” the patron responds, seemingly sincerely, before obliging him. Kor barely reacts to his lie being met by honest loss.)
The encounter with Tricia, when it finally comes, is anticlimactic. In rehearsal, the fake Tricia would sometimes react angrily at Kor’s confession or break down sobbing. Fielder once had all the extras in the bar deride Kor en masse (“This guy is such a fraud!” “Who doesn’t have a master’s degree?”), a stress dream brought to life. But the real Tricia is barely fazed, and their conversation takes unexpected turns—Kor talks about his difficult childhood and the importance of their friendship as the painstaking plan fades away. In his final conversation with Fielder, Kor seems more pleased by how well they did at trivia than anything else. Fielder considers telling him that he secretly helped him win, by getting that night’s questions in advance and feeding Kor the information he would need over the course of the preceding days. But when he rehearsed that part of the conversation, the fake Kor reacted very badly, so he does not.
The first episode turns out to be a mere prelude. Fielder soon discards the rehearsal-of-the-week structure it implied in favor of something more sustained and open-ended. The vertiginous reflexivity grows and grows—he eventually hires an actor to play himself, so he can repeat events that have already happened on the show and experience them from other perspectives. (This actor’s fine performance nonetheless highlights the oddity of Fielder’s actual affect; his slight air of gentleness helps one see the real Fielder’s muted aggression more clearly.) He expands the idea of “rehearsal” to bizarre proportions, pursuing some obscure investigation of his own, and the show’s queasy, hypnotic appeal is driven by the mystery of what exactly he is after. Even he doesn’t quite seem to know.
The second episode introduces us to a woman in her early forties named Angela, a devout Christian of a somewhat New Agey, conspiracy-minded sort, who is trying to decide whether to have children. Her extraordinarily elaborate rehearsal lasts for months and continues, with a few interruptions, for the rest of the season. It involves a large country house in which almost every room is rigged with cameras, and a legion of child actors hired to play her son at different ages so she can experience the full sweep of parenthood. These actors are switched out every few hours to abide by child labor laws, resulting in a series of uncanny images: a team of production assistants rushing through an open window to swap an infant out of its crib, like HR-mandated fairies sneaking in a changeling; a toddler going in for a nap and emerging as a different boy in the same clothes, answering to the same name—and perhaps a few years older.
Angela is single but says she would not want to be a single parent, so Fielder attempts to find a partner with whom she can raise her practice child. Here the show briefly morphs into a dating game. After a couple of false starts, they find a tall, good-looking younger man named Robbin, who seems to be as religious as she is. He turns out to be a narcissistic, numerology-obsessed pothead who found God the previous spring after, as he repeatedly proclaims, “totaling my Scion tC at a hundred miles an hour.” His goal is clearly just to sleep with Angela (and, one assumes, to get on TV), and he soon exits the show. After he leaves, Fielder—thirty-eight, childless, and “longing for something more permanent,” he tells us—decides to take his place, moving into the rehearsal house as Angela’s co-parent. “It wouldn’t be romantic in any way,” he assures her: she flinches and immediately changes the subject.
Fielder’s relationship with Angela is one of the richest on the show—rich, especially, in tension. It is soon made very clear that she loathes him. A brief montage shows how she behaves alone—buoyant, dancing, singing to herself—and we realize that Fielder has spent a great deal of HBO’s money to confirm a basic human anxiety: this person, at least, is happier when he’s not around. Their arguments about how to raise their child (that should really be “raise” “their” “child”; in The Rehearsal, scare quotes rain down on every moment) are a study in mutual passive aggression. Fielder is stammeringly nonconfrontational, strenuously suppressing his contempt. Angela is bright and chipper, and all the more so the angrier she gets: her face goes smooth and taut, “like a glove within which the hand clenches into a fist,” to borrow a phrase from Robert Musil. “I’m pretty much like a no,” she says when pushed to her absolute limit.
She is a precisely ambiguous counterpart to Fielder; the show both mocks her and uses her to condemn him. “Not everything is make-believe,” she admonishes him. “Some things are real.” It is hard not to feel he could use the reminder, yet the immediate context is her refusal to celebrate Halloween “because it’s the highest satanic holiday of the year.” “He likes to manipulate people,” she says of him. “He lies a lot.” Evidently correct, yet here the issue at hand is her unwillingness to allow Judaism—Fielder is Jewish, though, as he admits, it has been years since he attended synagogue—into their son’s “faith-based homeschooling curriculum.”*
Along the way there is a shorter set of rehearsals for a man named Patrick trying to persuade his brother to release his share of their inheritance, and a foray to LA for an acting class in which Fielder tries to teach the students how to better imitate ordinary people (it involves a fair amount of stalking), but Angela’s remains the dominant thread. It only gets more intricate: her fantasy homelife involves growing her own food, so Fielder equips the property with a simulated garden in which seeds are replaced overnight by fully grown vegetables from the supermarket. At one point he decides it’s time for the holiday season, so fake snow is trucked in. These arrangements lead to some great sight gags, not so much funny as perfect and absurd, like something out of Playtime—a pepper pulled from the dirt with a sticker still on it, a house surrounded by a circle of snow that stops after a few feet. But the question of what, at bottom, this is all for remains baffling. All the more so when Angela at last gets fed up and quits, leaving Fielder to continue on his own.
The most obvious points of comparison for The Rehearsal are Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), both of which feature well-funded protagonists constructing elaborate recreations of the everyday world for obscure reasons of their own. The outsize attention these works give to mundanity could seem simultaneously revelatory and demented, and both, in the end, feel deeply lonely. The Rehearsal follows a similar arc. But Fielder’s show is not, or at least seems not to be, a work of fiction: there are real people at the center of his creations, not following his script but simply reacting as best they can. At some point—some elusive, tantalizing point—these reconstructions meet reality.
Much of the initial reaction to the show focused on the question of exploitation. The New Yorker, for instance, ran articles by several critics, online and in print. Richard Brody called Fielder “cruel, arrogant, and, above all, indifferent” in his treatment of the people on the show. Naomi Fry agreed that it risks being an “aloofly voyeuristic…theatre of humiliation,” but also pointed out “Fielder’s commitment to exposing the web he weaves for The Rehearsal’s participants,” foregrounding his deceptions. (Both reviews seem to have been written before the airing of the show’s final episode, which includes what will for many viewers be the most troubling material.)
And yet the things that make people uncomfortable about The Rehearsal are baked into all reality TV. To put real people on camera and cajole them into becoming entertainment, whether drama or comedy, is always to risk creating a theater of humiliation. The bamboozled subjects disguised as empowered collaborators, the deceptive casting calls and hastily signed releases: these are features of the form, and The Rehearsal doesn’t hide them. The show is if anything more humane than most in its treatment of its stars. Fielder not only displays his own off-putting techniques but gives his subjects space to react to them. He includes Kor’s reluctance and confusion and Angela’s disgust; he includes the fact that Patrick, a few rehearsals in, stopped returning his calls.
We’re meant to laugh a little at these people, but we’re also meant to see what they see, sooner or later: that Fielder is a bit of a creep, and what he’s offering is a devil’s bargain. He doesn’t just manipulate his subjects; he invites them to manipulate as well. He offers not just fame but power. This is the other crucial thing that sets The Rehearsal apart from Remainder and Synecdoche, New York (and from the reenactment-based documentaries of Joshua Oppenheimer and Robert Greene, to which it has also been compared): it looks forward, not back. Its recreations of reality are meant not to help understand the past but to control the future. “Free yourself from doubt and regret,” Fielder murmurs, beckoning you into his world of flowcharts and doppelgängers. It’s “the one place on earth you couldn’t fail.”
This, finally, is the driving force of the show, the emotion underlying all its provocations and extravagant formal elaborations: fear. The Rehearsal assumes we have a desperate hunger for predictability—an overwhelming terror of the unknown—and provides an expensive, painstakingly constructed machine to fill it. It’s both insane and incredibly tempting, an experiment and a slippery portrayal of an experiment. The crazier it gets, the harder it is to answer the question: Wouldn’t you want this, if you could have it? If you knew it would work?
The pandemic is never directly mentioned, though crew members wearing masks appear in some scenes, but The Rehearsal is the most pandemic-era work of television I’ve seen: a vision of life as a series of protective simulacra, imperfectly slotted together around a core of bone-deep anxiety. Every interaction with another person is a threat that must be contained, and even inanimate objects can betray you. (In the first episode, Fielder laments how “just a slight difference” between a simulated chair and the real one ruins part of an encounter.) Every moment feels rubbed raw by the chaos of the past few years, animated by the wish that just one thing would go the way it’s supposed to.
In this sense, though many of its techniques are recognizable from Fielder’s previous work, The Rehearsal is the inverse of the gleefully chaotic Nathan for You. In the final episode of that series, a feature-length road trip called “Finding Frances,” Fielder attempts to help a seventy-eight-year-old sometime actor named Bill Heath, who had appeared briefly on previous episodes as a “Bill Gates impersonator,” find the lost love of his life. After a few misadventures, they manage to get Frances’s address, so Fielder hires an actress to play her and invites Bill to prepare. It is, yes, a rehearsal. And yet it is nothing like The Rehearsal. Fielder, Bill, and the actress meet in an empty black-box theater with a minimalist set—little more than a doorway and a couple pieces of furniture. There are no assistants, no elaborate simulations, no flowcharts, no invasive research. Rather than focus on contingency plans or worst-case scenarios, Fielder prods Bill to imagine how Frances might feel in this situation, and even asks him and the actress to switch roles so he’ll understand it better. He’s after empathy, not control.
“Finding Frances” was a one-off, an unusually languid and relaxed good-bye to a yearslong project. The Rehearsal—which has been renewed for a second season—is meant to be the start of another, and Fielder may have felt that complexity and strangeness offered more interesting possibilities than straightforward empathy. But the earlier rehearsal is also simply missing the new show’s brittleness, its underlying aversion to the unexpected.
The unexpected does, finally, come for Fielder—in the form of a child. In the final episode of this season, Fielder is starting to wind down the rehearsal. All the six-year-old versions of his ersatz child are to be sent home for the last time. But one of them won’t go. “No!” he shouts, refusing to change back into his own clothes. “I don’t wanna leave.” Fielder gives him a hug, but the boy is only consoled when his mother promises he can come see Fielder again.
His name is Remy, and as Fielder tells us in voiceover, “If I’m being honest, out of all the kids in this project, I sort of got along with him the most.” In a previous episode, much to the disgust of Angela, he and Remy had improvised a madcap scatological video about “Dr. Fart,” the most relaxed, lighthearted sequence in the show. Remy is being raised by a single mother, and as she puts it, he is now looking at other kids’ fathers and “he’s definitely wondering, Where’s mine?” At home, he calls Fielder his “pretend daddy”—as in, “My pretend daddy loves me.” “I spent a week with a child who had no dad, pretending that I was his dad,” Fielder muses in voiceover. “What did I think was gonna happen?”
That Remy is an extraordinarily sweet and witty little boy, and that his mother takes his confused longing with a kind of easygoing sadness (“My heart literally broke into a million pieces…but…it is what it is”), only underlines the quiet horror of the situation. It is simultaneously an indictment of the entire show—a display of the actual danger of playing with real feelings—and a justification for it. Here at last Fielder has managed to engineer a predicament one genuinely might want to practice for.
He spins out into a series of sub-rehearsals: Remy played by another little boy and by a teenager, himself as Remy’s mom, an actress playing Angela (“If she had never left, maybe that would have made all the difference”). He does his best to talk it through with the real Remy: “That was just play…. In real life, you’re Remy and I’m Nathan, and we’re just friends, right?” But, as he obviously knows, there’s no immediate solution. Time rolls on, and kids forget; unless they don’t.
In 2004 David Foster Wallace published a strange, baggy novella called “The Suffering Channel.” Among much else, it was about the rise of reality TV, “the matrix of violation and exposure that was Reality.” “The single great informing conflict of the American psyche,” he wrote, is “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance.” Reality TV—like celebrity culture, “cheating on taxes,” “marketing,” “movements in fashion and music and art,” and the lives of everyone in the story—is driven by the need for “the management of insignificance.”
That was almost twenty years ago. Nathan Fielder was still struggling through a business degree at the University of Victoria. A generation has grown up since, learning ever more subtle techniques for that peculiar form of management: the parsing of minute degrees of fame and influence, the soothing power of good branding, the attention-holding effectiveness of histrionics. (If this sounds like the grumbling of the no-longer-young, that itself may be useful here: I am very close to the same age as Fielder.) By 2015 the critic Mark Fisher was pointing out that some reality TV had become “almost unbearable,” with a drastic “increase in savagery” since its earlier years. The causes, he felt, were the rise of the Internet and the increasing inequality of the economy, which had brought with them the ubiquitous “sense that nothing is permanent, everything is constantly under threat.” Reality TV was now “saturated with anxiety,” and everyone involved was lashing out.
The Rehearsal is about the fear of fatherhood and of other people, and about how funny it is to blow an HBO budget on nonsense—but it is also about what it means to turn reality into Reality, to try to navigate real life using the structures and materials our culture provides. This, I think, is part of what made it so unsettling to so many. We are used, by now, to watching people eagerly package up their own desires and talents and tragedies and basic humanity for the sake of a show, in hopes of getting famous, perhaps, or finding a partner or a house. We are not used to seeing those same structures of artifice and manipulation applied directly to our basic dread and longing. The show that results is so intentionally obscure, such an irrational, misbegotten version of reality TV, that watching it reminds us how treacherous these tools are.
“It’s scary,” Fielder says at the outset of Angela’s rehearsal, “to imagine raising a child when you always know that a single misstep on your part could ruin their entire life.” The show, then, could be seen as an intricate device to solve a familiar problem: one man using vast, ludicrous, and disquieting resources to talk himself into trusting the world, and himself, enough to bring a child into it. “I can change,” he tells himself in the final episode. “I can try to.”
This is too simple. Fielder feints in that direction (“Life’s better with surprises,” he declares, over a gently uplifting soundtrack), but he ends elsewhere, deeper into the artifice. In the final scene, Fielder is playing Remy’s mother, with another cherubic little boy playing Remy. The purpose of this rehearsal is less than clear. “It’s okay if you get confused,” Fielder reassures him—which is to say, Fielder-as-mom reassures the ersatz Remy. “No matter what you experience, we have each other…. ’Cause I’m your dad.” “Wait,” whispers the child actor, startled out of the scene. “I thought you were my mom.” The music stops. Fielder is crying, or seems to be. “No,” he says. “I’m your dad.”
Fielder’s Jewishness temporarily becomes a central subject of the show: his real parents appear to chide him for raising his fake child outside the faith, and he brings on a tutor, Miriam, first to teach the child Judaism in secret and then to confront Angela about her anti-Semitism. Miriam serves as another Janus-faced foil to Fielder: when he asks if she wants to rehearse for her confrontation with Angela, she merely laughs and says, “I like to shoot from the hip”—one can hear the entire show deflating quietly in the background—but her final scene features her delivering a lengthy Zionist diatribe, to Fielder’s visible discomfort. For more on the show’s treatment of Judaism and anti-Semitism, see “Playing Jewish,” an excellent roundtable by the staff of Jewish Currents, September 19, 2022. ↩