-What is it?-
The Rehearsal is a 2022 reality satire program created by Nathan Fielder and produced/distributed by HBO. The show follows Fielder, a slightly stiff and awkward man, in his attempts to help other people overcome their anxieties towards major life events—everything from being honest about lying to a friend, to raising a child—by rehearsing them. Fielder accomplishes this by constructing a set of the location where the major life event will take place that is so detailed as to be indistinguishable from the real place. Here, the participant is run through a variety of scenarios in order to practice for every possible outcome during the real event they’re preparing for.
These rehearsals, and the event they prepare the individuals for, often result in both comedic and genuinely sympathetic outcomes as both the subject and Fielder are forced to confront the realities of not only trying to plan for every scenario, but what happens when the unexpected manages to make its way through even the most airtight plan.
-Why should you care?-
The Rehearsal will not be for everyone—and it’s initial debut has proven the point. Many of its critics believe Fielder is punching down at his subject matter, finding regular people and putting them through ridiculous, even hurtful, scenarios so he can produce a television show that will demonstrate his prowess as a cult comedy icon and a showrunner of significant and novel stature.
That criticism is not necessarily unfounded. Fielder made his entry into the popular awareness with Nathan For You, a show with a similar model and spirit, where he approached small business owners with outlandish but at times inventive or ingenious ideas to improve their business, and filmed the entire process. Much of the show has been cited as a document for how far people will go when they know a television camera is involved—and that is a large part of the criticism directed towards Fielder, that he baits regular people into on-camera spectacles, which he subsequently distances himself from through a demeanor that is simultaneously awkward and unsure yet oddly and sometimes suddenly perceptive and cutting.
Again, this is not unfounded. Fielder is, at this point, a veteran of the entertainment industry and has far more experience both on-camera and in a performative sense than anyone he could bring on his show. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t subjected himself to embarrassing or cruel situations or people—but he’s a professional performer, and his subjects are not. There’s a strong case to be made that no one other than him, or someone with a similar background to his, could fully consent to any of what goes on during his shows, because no one other than him or someone like him would have both the natural and the trained ability to handle reactions both honestly and appropriately for the camera. A possible analogy could be an Olympic competitive swimmer who invites regular people with little swimming experience to try their hardest to swim for a certain amount of time on-camera in exchange for money. Occasionally, the swimmer gets in the pool, and despite being awkward and out-of-touch, easily surpasses any of the regular people. He then gets out and continues to film, all while maintaining his, “I don’t quite get regular people, aren’t they odd?” personality.
This is a simple distillation and a lot of criticism, so do not let it overshadow nor undermine these next words—Nathan Fielder is authentically a television genius. This kind of superlative is trotted out for him often, even moreso now with The Rehearsal, but it deserves to be said.
Personally, this reviewer believes such reasoning for a title can be found in what they thought to be the most gripping episode of The Rehearsal, the first. The introduction of the idea of rehearsing, the reveal of the replica set, the visuals of Nathan recording the participant’s dialogue in trees with a computer baby bjorn—brilliant. Absolutely and unequivocally brilliant. The whole concept itself is reminiscent of a Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut science fiction story in its quotidian application but its quietly grand scope and results. Even the tagline is something out of a short pulp science fiction story about a center that helps people rehearse moments of their lives:
A happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance.
In this reviewer’s opinion, Fielder’s genius is in his conception, and the opening salvo of his new show proves as much.
However, he appears to falter when it comes to the more nuanced parts of the execution. His comedy is dependent on an engagement with real people—but does it have to be? Is that genuinely the best and funniest way to create these situations? Certainly it’s a brilliant work of art, and there is little else that holds a candle to it in terms of creativity and effort. But is this the best way to do set out what he accomplishes, and if it is, does he, or can he, stay honest to that stated endeavor?
This goes especially double if he wants to insert himself into the show. In the current iteration of The Rehearsal, I found that component both fascinating, but eventually telling—it stops being about the subjects, and eventually ends up being entirely about Nathan. That slow transition of focus does in some way turn people even more into props for his own story, rather than focal characters where the human condition is explored. Either that was what Fielder was intending, or perhaps the well ran dry, regular people stopped being good T.V., and he had to step in.
It would perhaps be interesting to see Fielder create a show that took one of his high-concepts but rendered it through a lens that is purely fictional—Nirvana The Band, The Show is a present example of this. He could still use amateur actors or real people in some capacity, but the show itself is fictionalized. This frees him for a different kind of comedy and story telling, one that my not be as immediately shocking, but has the potential to yield a far more rich level of exploration and possibly innovation for himself and the people he involves himself with.
Even The Rehearsal sets the stage perfectly for an entirely fictional television show. One that focuses on a guy who doesn’t understand social interaction who runs a business designed to help people live some of the hardest moments of their lives perfectly. It’s an amazing idea, and one with vast potential—and it’s now up to Fielder to demonstrate that he’s more than just a man with great ideas, but someone who knows how to fulfill them to the best of the opportunity they present, too.