Nathan Fielder’s wild HBO show The Rehearsal, explained

Think about a TV present so profoundly unusual that the extra you considered it, the much less you knew what it … was. The extra you dug into the easy components, the much less simple they bought. The additional down the rabbit gap you strayed, the extra lure doorways and lifeless ends gave the impression to be scattered alongside the passageway.

That’s The Rehearsal, from Nathan Fielder, of Nathan For You fame. In his earlier present, which ran from 2013 to 2018 on Comedy Central, Nathan “helped” struggling small companies to “clear up” their issues with more and more byzantine and elaborate and all the time completely ineffective schemes. An alcohol retailer the place minors can preorder, for pickup after they attain authorized consuming age. A loophole that lets a bar enable clients to smoke inside, supplied they’re in a theatrical manufacturing (to which the resourceful Nathan sells tickets). All through, he performs a personality that’s clearly considerably associated to his “actual” self however is, we now have to consider, sort of a bit.

Nathan For You could possibly be unusual and hilarious; The Rehearsal is in a complete completely different stratosphere. Because the present’s identify suggests, it begins out as a sort of social experiment slash remedy innovation: Nathan locates individuals (on Craigslist, apparently) who must have troublesome conversations or in any other case emotionally fraught situations. Then he meticulously recreates the circumstances underneath which they are going to have this interplay, hires an actor to play different individuals within the “scene,” and rigorously rehearses the encounter, attempting to anticipate potential outcomes and put together the “actual” individual for the dialog.

Image of a spoiler warning

Warning: Particulars from episodes 1-4 of The Rehearsal are mentioned under.

Within the pilot episode, Nathan helps a person named Kor — a good-natured Brooklyn public college instructor — inform certainly one of his bar trivia teammates that he doesn’t have a grasp’s diploma, although for a few years he’s led the group to consider he has. Nathan is able to assist him deal with his lie, together with constructing, on a sound stage, an ideal recreation of the bar the place Kor’s encounter would happen. (That bar? Brooklyn’s Alligator Lounge, well-known amongst New Yorkers of my classic for giving out a free pizza with each beer.) It looks like one thing straight out of Charlie Kaufman’s existentially trippy Synecdoche, New York.

This pilot episode generated speedy buzz, for apparent causes. It’s clear nearly from the beginning that what we’re seeing in The Rehearsal will not be as simple because the comedy of Nathan For You. Two of the main story beats in The Rehearsal’s pilot episode depend on the truth that Nathan has additionally rehearsed his encounters with Kor, constructing a duplicate of Kor’s home, working towards their first encounter, and later revealing a secret of his personal to Kor — all of which occurs with the help of an actor (Okay. Todd Freeman).

A bar built on a sound stage, with people streaming into it.

The faux Alligator Lounge on the sound stage.
HBO

The longer you watch The Rehearsal, although, the much less apparent it’s what you’re truly watching.

And that’s not a bug — it’s a characteristic. The Rehearsal is no less than partially designed to activate a connection that’s not often alive within the largely passive medium of TV: the hyperlink between viewers and creator. (TV tends to make us really feel linked to characters, to not the individuals behind the digicam.) To place it one other method, if it makes you are feeling bizarre, that’s the purpose.

Generally, savvy Twenty first-century watchers that we’re, we anticipate every part on TV — from scripted dramas to the screamiest actuality present — to be, in a way, fiction. Most of us know by now that what we see on TV is crafted actuality, not the actual factor.

But. But. The Rehearsal repeatedly defies this. Are individuals like Kor and Angela (the middle-aged Christian girl with whom Nathan “raises” a “little one”) and Robbin (the person she dates, who seems to be sort of a numerologist) and Patrick (whose brother thinks his girlfriend is a “gold digger”) … “actual”? Are they victims? Are they in on it? What concerning the crew? The actors? Does turning the mechanics of Nathan’s contrived worlds inside out make them extra genuine, or are there extra layers to uncover?

All of because of this what you see in The Rehearsal — which truthfully I can not consider HBO greenlit, it’s so wild — will not be what your good friend sees or somebody on Twitter sees. There are a variety of methods of taking a look at The Rehearsal.

Listed below are a couple of.

I

The Rehearsal is an exploitative actuality present

And Nathan Fielder is a monster.

Not each one of many “actual” individuals who come on The Rehearsal is made to look unhealthy. Kor specifically appears nice. The members within the Nathan Fielder Appearing Technique lessons that type the spine of Episode 4 — who, irrespective of how deep they’re in on the joke, are positively actors — appear gifted, severe, and hard-working. When the teenage model of Angela and Nathan’s “son,” Adam, breaks character and lets himself be an actor named Joshua, he’s startlingly insightful, and his efficiency is nice.

Alternatively, there’s Robbin, who dates Angela and nearly strikes into the home. He begins out seeming sort of laid-back and funky and ends trying like somebody who wants some assist. He begins to say issues that he later characterised to Vice (after the second episode aired) as “douchey,” however complained didn’t present the total image of his persona.

Or there’s Patrick, who looks like a reasonably bizarre man, useful to a person he thinks is his scene companion’s grandpa (he, in fact, can be an actor) — aside from these glib and shockingly anti-Semitic feedback.

Nathan watching a rehearsal with Patrick (on the left).
HBO

And naturally, there’s Angela. Angela! What to say about Angela? On the one hand, she appears exceptionally calm and picked up about this complete bizarre factor, which was admittedly created partially for her profit however can be only a actually odd approach to spend a couple of months of your life. There are moments on the present the place you understand you’re meant to snort or no less than gawk, when she tells Nathan to “key phrase search” Google to seek out out about Satanic rituals that happen on Halloween, then says that Google is run by Devil. Generally she looks like the voice of unusual cause, however usually her actions appear harebrained, like your vaguely conspiratorial aunt who posts about important oil MLMs on Fb. Nathan even goes to this point, on the finish of episode 3, to suggest that he needs he could possibly be like her as she “deceives” herself and “gathers solely what [she] must know and ignores the remainder.”

Presumably all of those “actual individuals” knew, on some stage, what they had been stepping into; it’s not like no person’s heard of TV modifying earlier than. However with out figuring out what their contracts or preparation seemed like, or what bought left on the chopping room flooring, we don’t know the way or to what stage they’re in on the joke or a sufferer of it — although it appears affordable to say no person may have predicted what The Rehearsal would become. (Perhaps not even Nathan Fielder.)

After all, this occurs on a regular basis. It’s fairly actually unimaginable to painting the total essence, in all its complexity, of a human being on a TV present. The moral wickets listed below are sticky, and all the time have been. For some individuals, the query this raises is whether or not watching The Rehearsal is in some way completely different from watching The Bachelor or The Actual Housewives of Salt Lake Metropolis or Love Island. Or, for that matter, if it’s completely different from watching a documentary that exhibits individuals at protests or a real crime sequence that permits odd characters to seem as speaking heads.

If the reply is sure, why? If it’s no, what does that imply about our reactions?

Is that the purpose?

II

The Rehearsal is an exceptionally bizarre documentary

And Nathan Fielder is an artist.

The filmmaker Robert Greene is fond of claiming, as he lately tweeted, that “just about each nice documentary is on some stage about the way it possibly shouldn’t exist.” (He ought to know; he makes them.)

The distinction between documentary (or as I desire, “nonfiction cinema”) and scripted (or “fiction”) movies is that within the first class, you anticipate that what you’re watching has occurred in the actual world. Within the second, you anticipate it was staged, on some stage, so that you can watch, and that you would be able to’t simply stumble upon these precise characters on the road.

That line, although, is way blurrier than awards classes and critics wish to make it out to be. Once I wrote about this final summer season, I famous a number of the the explanation why:

The context during which we encounter movies and pictures has additionally shifted, particularly in a streaming age. Information, leisure, and verité footage uploaded to the web by any random individual can and sometimes is all accessed via the identical display screen or gadget. If you happen to’ve ever watched a TV present the place actors play out a scene that appears just like what you’re seeing in a YouTube clip, and also you’re watching each the present and the YouTube clip on comparable screens, it’s much more troublesome to withstand having the fiction body the way you perceive the nonfiction.

The Rehearsal doesn’t simply blur the road; it erases it. It tries to make you query not simply whether or not what you’re watching is actual, but when something is actual.

Two men

What’s actual? Can we even know anymore?
HBO

Take the just-aired episode 4, as an illustration, during which Fielder leaves his “household” behind in Oregon and travels to Los Angeles, the place he plans to show the “Fielder methodology” to a bunch of actors. The tactic: shadow an actual individual and attempt to perceive them from the within out — their decisions, their occupation, their dwelling, their mannerisms — after which basically turn out to be that individual in an effort to “play” them in certainly one of Fielder’s rehearsals. Then, and solely then, can they obtain “the extent of realism I wanted for this mission,” as he places it.

However Nathan will get swallowed by that very same dang rabbit gap. He’s undecided how the primary day truly landed with the actors, who he finds intimidating. (“They’ve a method of channeling another person’s feelings that I don’t absolutely perceive,” he remarks. We’ll come again to that.) So he re-stages the primary day, this time whereas “taking part in” a randomly chosen member of the performing class named Thomas and populating the room with a brand new set of actors, who put on the garments and repeat the identical strains as the unique class a day earlier than. There’s even a faux Nathan up on the entrance.

This already feels contrived, as a result of it’s. However the extra I give it some thought, the weirder it will get due to the mechanics. Have been the scholars within the firstclass truly college students who thought they had been studying one thing in a category? How did what they mentioned get communicated to the second class, who I assume are all actors, in time for them to study their “strains”? How did they get the identical garments as the primary group? How a lot time elapsed between the primary and second days? Did HBO pay varied LA-area institutions to permit performing college students to work there, or did they pay the açaí bowl place the place Thomas and Nathan work, or did they only pay the açaí bowl place sufficient to shoot a four-minute scene? Did they actually lease all these flats? Does Thomas even have an enormous Pikachu in his bed room?

(It’s no less than a bit humorous that Thomas has a Hamlet poster on his wall on which the big textual content, which we see Nathan studying, is “To be or to not be / That’s the query.” Or, wait — did HBO put the poster there?!)

The very best documentaries aren’t actually about speaking data in a transparent style (that’s journalism). They’re about making us reevaluate the very act of seeing, the way in which we encounter and perceive the world, the assumptions we make and the methods we mess up. They allow us to movie the world and play it again — which, once I say it that method, sounds rather a lot like The Rehearsal — and encounter it in a different way.

And in so doing, encounter ourselves in a different way.

III

The Rehearsal is a mea culpa memoir

And Nathan Fielder is a wounded man.

It’s not an accident that in what’s imagined to be their most emotionally weak dialog within the present’s pilot, Nathan brings as much as Kor that he’s been divorced. (That occurred in 2014.) However as Kor begins to share the ache of his personal divorce, they’re interrupted by an outdated man coming into the pool. “I didn’t need to go too deep into my non-public life, so I had pre-planned for an aged swimming to interrupt us,” Nathan intones in voiceover.

When speaking to New York journal’s Lila Shapiro concerning the divorce in a 2022 profile, Fielder instructed Shapiro that this scene precisely depicted his personal proclivities. “You’re seeing me management and never desirous to share,” he mentioned, including that he’s “conscious I’m like that, and so it’s within the present.” Later, he catches himself desirous to mislead Shapiro about when he sought remedy following the divorce. He instructed her that he as soon as misplaced management of his feelings in a gathering, and it was “a really jarring expertise.” He says it was bodily painful to speak to a therapist about his feelings.

All of which is true on the floor of the present and a helpful lens to have a look at what’s occurring. The primary episode is a peek into Nathan’s want for management, and the second continues that theme, to the purpose the place he decides to only be a part of Angela’s rehearsal — that’s, increase her faux child along with her — reasonably than solid somebody in that position.

Within the third episode, he finds himself stymied by Patrick’s “technique” within the rehearsal, by which he means Patrick’s considerably straightforward show of emotion when speaking about grieving the dying of his personal grandfather. Later, in voiceover, Nathan says, “I used to be beginning to surprise how I may so simply recreate emotions inside different individuals’s rehearsals once I couldn’t do it for myself.” By the tip of the episode, watching Angela wash greens from the “backyard,” he’s attempting to determine learn how to “engineer” feelings.

Nathan in a rocking chair, sitting on a porch.

Nathan contemplates. On the “porch” of his “home.”
HBO

Within the fourth episode, Nathan finds himself performing as certainly one of his personal performing college students, surrounded by actors who’re taking part in different performing college students. It’s so many levels faraway from actuality that I confess my mind sort of broke. He’s watching the individuals round him, questioning in essence what they’re all doing there, though he introduced them there.

On his second go-round taking part in Thomas on the primary day of sophistication (did you get that?), he displays on the expertise:

I felt a rush of pleasure come over me once I remembered there have been cameras filming me. HBO cameras. I like being on digicam, however I needed to play it cool, like I didn’t care that a lot … Wait, what is this present? Is it a present about an performing class? Am I imagined to be performing? One thing doesn’t make sense. If you happen to’re coaching actors for a present, why would you be filming the coaching? I needed to ask, however I used to be nervous it will appear impolite. I didn’t need to stand out. I needed to impress “Nathan.”

This complete episode causes him to query — or no less than “query,” for the present — his personal strategies, from his precise educating technique to seemingly mundane issues like asking actors to signal contracts they couldn’t probably learn fastidiously earlier than they agree. Thomas, the actual performing pupil he tries to kind of turn out to be, tells Nathan that he doesn’t like mendacity to individuals; Nathan realizes that he’s by no means actually understood Thomas. That … oh expensive … we by no means actually know what’s occurring inside individuals’s heads.

So there’s a method of taking a look at The Rehearsal as Nathan Fielder’s big and really costly remedy session for himself, one which implements all types of strategies to get round hangups and emotional challenges that he’s all the time had. That he’s nonetheless processing the ache that comes with going via a divorce, in addition to a few of his assumptions concerning the world and the individuals he brings into his exhibits, and he’s doing it on those self same HBO cameras as a result of, effectively, he likes being on digicam.

With most individuals, this is able to be interminable, unimaginable to observe. The genius on show right here is that every one I need to do is preserve watching.

IV

The Rehearsal is … effectively, we don’t know but

And Nathan Fielder is a trickster.

Truly, that is the place I land. HBO gave critics the primary 5 episodes of the present however not the sixth, which suggests some subterfuge. Every episode has a second (or moments!) the place you may really feel the rug pulled out from underneath you, and one thing you assumed was true out of the blue turns into a fabrication. (Subsequent week’s episode has such a second, and it took my breath away.)

That’s why I believe it’s practically unimaginable to say what we’re actually watching till it’s over. (I kind of anticipate it should nonetheless be unimaginable when the primary season ends, however I assume we’ll see.) I’ve deep suspicions about how “actual” Angela is, as an illustration. I used to be raised amongst individuals who share most of her beliefs. I used to be not allowed to have fun Halloween for the explanations she raises. I’m conversant in her educating strategies (having been homeschooled myself). And when Nathan and “Adam” watch a present collectively that includes a speaking caterpillar discussing mendacity (one other clue?), I knew it was primarily based on a e-book by mega-bestselling evangelical creator Max Lucado. However a few of what she says — not simply the issues that might scan as “loopy” — appear a bit too coincidental, to me.

In any case, initially of the third episode, she lectures Nathan (who’s clad in a Batman costume), reminding him that “Not every part is make-believe. Some issues are actual. It’s a must to open your eyes to actuality.”

And possibly that is simply the plight of the movie critic, however I believe most good artwork can’t be evaluated in items; you must see the form of the entire to know what you’ve simply skilled. It’s like chopping a Picasso in half after which considering you understand what the portray is. You kind of get it, however to essentially see it, you’ll want to have the entire thing in entrance of you.

Nathan Fielder watches a screen full of cameras.

Nathan Fielder, the god of the equipment.
HBO

That mentioned, one interpretive framework that made me go “huh” comes from PJ Grisar within the Ahead, who makes use of the Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum to discover Fielder’s strategies. It triggered the reminiscence of a Jewish midrash about prior worlds, which I (as a Gentile) encountered first throughout Darren Aronofsky’s discussions of his movies Noah and Mom!; in short, God created and destroyed many worlds till he lastly bought this one proper. Which is strictly what Nathan does on the finish of this episode: he ditches {the teenager} and rewinds to age 6, thus creating a brand new world to get proper this time. It’s not the primary time he’s executed it, and it speaks to the huge impossibility, the greedy despair, of being a mere mortal and never an infinite being or vitality that may make and un-make at will.

And there are another, at minimal, intelligent Biblically inflected coincidences all through. That Nathan’s “child” is called Adam — a reputation he shares with the primary man that God created within the Biblical account of Genesis? That the second episode is about not having the ability to discover a appropriate “mate” for Angela? That episode 3 prominently includes a contentious relationship between two brothers? That the doubting Fielder methodology “disciple” in Nathan’s performing class is called … Thomas? (In case you had been questioning, there are solely 11 college students within the class.)

On the one hand, I don’t actually assume Nathan Fielder is invoking historical scriptures or Midrash Rabbah in making The Rehearsal. Alternatively … possibly? Examine again with me when it’s throughout.

In any case, speculations about what Fielder is “doing,” in a pedantic method, with The Rehearsal could also be much less necessary than what it does to us. If you end up questioning what precisely you’re watching, then you definitely’re no less than heading in the right direction. “It’s straightforward to imagine that others assume the worst of you,” Nathan says on the finish of the fourth episode. “However while you assume what others assume, possibly all you’re doing is popping them into a personality that solely exists in your thoughts.”

“The good factor,” he concludes, “is typically all it takes is a change in perspective to make the world really feel brand-new.”

The Rehearsal airs at 11 pm ET on Fridays and streams on HBO Max.