Courtesy of Decider
Nathan Fielder’s new series, “The Rehearsal” the first season of which ended this Friday — HBO has already renewed the program for a second season — has proved to be one of the most extraordinary works of television in recent memory. Fielder has always been a contemporary genius of alternative comedy. Fielder’s Emmy Award-winning 2013 Comedy Central series “Nathan For You” captured audiences with his dead-pan and absurdist approach to helping small businesses (check out “Dumb Starbucks” If you somehow haven’t already). He also served as executive producer for the HBO sensation “How To With John Wilson”. Fielder’s newest project, however, is something that transcends his entire prior body of work — and comedy itself.
The general premise of “The Rehearsal” is this: what if you could rehearse and prepare for consequential or life-changing moments before they occur? Through elaborately staged rehearsals every possibility and outcome is accounted for, making sure the participant is fully equipped to embrace situations that otherwise seemed insurmountable. The concept was seemingly formed as a result of Nathan’s own social awkwardness, admitting in the opening minutes of episode one that “Humor is my go-to instinct, but every joke is a gamble”. The show positions Fielder as a dream maker, a man of unlimited resources wielding the power to help ordinary folks solve interpersonal problems that seemed overwhelming before.
The premiere introduces the audience to Kor Skeet, an avid trivia nut who is dreading telling a longtime friend and trivia partner that he had lied to her for years about having a master’s degree. Skeet, fearing this heart-to-heart may ruin his friendship, turns to Fielder. In order to help him, Fielder creates a 1:1 replica of the bar where the meeting will take place and hires an actress to play Skeet’s friend. Meanwhile, Fielder observes with a laptop rigged to his chest following along with a dialogue path chart that maps out what will be said, and any possible deviations that may occur during the conversation. The process which is later dubbed “The Fielder Method” proves successful and Skeet is unburdened by the truth without losing his friend. You’d be forgiven for thinking that “The Rehearsal” was simply an offbeat reality show after episode one–but this is a clever misdirection. What it becomes is something wholly new: equal parts social experiment and elaborate performance art piece.
Part of the show’s genius is in its willingness to continually reinvent itself. After episode one Nathan produces a rehearsal for Angela, a woman who wants to use a rehearsal to learn how to navigate raising children. For this Fielder hires an absurd number of child actors to chronicle the life of a child named Adam. Fielder eventually decides to participate in the rehearsal in the role of the father, given his own desire for a family. This project reveals itself to be much bigger than the first scenario and as a result, the Angela rehearsal morphs into a season-long throughline. One wonders if the tangential rhythm the show finds in episodes two through six is the result of completely organic experimentation. It is almost as if the original plan for the show was ditched when the Angela rehearsal escalated in terms of scale and complexity—-and as Nathan became less of an observer and more of the subject himself. The first episode may seem disconnected from the rest of season one, but it’s actually critically used to establish the rules of the series — it is almost like a prologue for the “real” show.
It’s impossible to go into much more detail without spoiling the absurdism and element of surprise which makes “The Rehearsal” so brilliant in the first place. Simply put, there is no piece of filmmaking reaching any of the stunning emotional or artistic heights “The Rehearsal” is achieving. The way the show blurs the lines between fiction and reality, make-believe and real life, is truly astonishing. While some of Nathan’s experimental diatribes can feel a little aimless at times, season one as a whole is overwhelmingly perfect. There is no question that Fielder is the preeminent comedic genius of our time.
It’s not immediately clear what shape season two will take but rest assured Fielder is probably already rehearsing it.
Stream “The Rehearsal” on HBO Max.