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 simple components, the much less simple they acquired. 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 at all times 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 permit 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’ve to imagine, type of a bit.

Nathan For You might be unusual and hilarious; The Rehearsal is in an entire totally different stratosphere. Because the present’s identify suggests, it begins out as a type of social experiment slash remedy innovation: Nathan locates individuals (on Craigslist, apparently) who must have troublesome conversations or in any other case emotionally fraught eventualities. Then he meticulously recreates the situations below which they are going to have this interplay, hires an actor to play different individuals within the “scene,” and rigorously rehearses the encounter, making an attempt to anticipate doable outcomes and put together the “actual” particular person for the dialog.

Image of a spoiler warning

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

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 workforce to imagine 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 seems like one thing straight out of Charlie Kaufman’s existentially trippy Synecdoche, New York.

This pilot episode generated rapid buzz, for apparent causes. It’s clear nearly from the beginning that what we’re seeing in The Rehearsal shouldn’t be as simple because the comedy of Nathan For You. Two of the key 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, practising their first encounter, and later revealing a secret of his personal to Kor — all of which occurs with the help of an actor (Ok. Todd Freeman).

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

The pretend Alligator Lounge on the sound stage.
HBO

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

And that’s not a bug — it’s a characteristic. The Rehearsal is at the least 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 digital camera.) To place it one other approach, if it makes you’re feeling bizarre, that’s the purpose.

Normally, savvy Twenty first-century watchers that we’re, we anticipate all the pieces 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 lady with whom Nathan “raises” a “baby”) and Robbin (the person she dates, who seems to be type of a numerologist) and Patrick (whose brother thinks his girlfriend is a “gold digger”) … “actual”? Are they victims? Are they in on it? What in regards to 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 actually I can not imagine HBO greenlit, it’s so wild — will not be what your buddy sees or somebody on Twitter sees. There are numerous 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 particularly appears nice. The members within the Nathan Fielder Appearing Technique courses that type the spine of Episode 4 — who, irrespective of how deep they’re in on the joke, are undoubtedly actors — appear proficient, critical, 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.

However, there’s Robbin, who dates Angela and nearly strikes into the home. He begins out seeming type 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 complete image of his persona.

Or there’s Patrick, who looks like a fairly extraordinary man, useful to a person he thinks is his scene companion’s grandpa (he, in fact, can also 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 also be only a actually odd strategy to spend a couple of months of your life. There are moments on the present the place you’re meant to chortle or at the least gawk, when she tells Nathan to “key phrase search” Google to search out out about Satanic rituals that happen on Halloween, then says that Google is run by Devil. Generally she looks like the voice of peculiar purpose, however usually her actions appear harebrained, like your vaguely conspiratorial aunt who posts about important oil MLMs on Fb. Nathan even goes thus far, on the finish of episode 3, to indicate that he needs he might be like her as she “deceives” herself and “gathers solely what [she] must know and ignores the remaining.”

Presumably all of those “actual individuals” knew, on some degree, what they had been stepping into; it’s not like no person’s heard of TV enhancing earlier than. However with out figuring out what their contracts or preparation regarded like, or what acquired left on the reducing room ground, we don’t understand how or to what degree they’re in on the joke or a sufferer of it — although it appears affordable to say no person might have predicted what The Rehearsal would grow to be. (Possibly not even Nathan Fielder.)

After all, this occurs on a regular basis. It’s fairly actually unattainable to painting the complete essence, in all its complexity, of a human being on a TV present. The moral wickets listed below are sticky, and at all times have been. For some individuals, the query this raises is whether or not watching The Rehearsal is in some way totally different from watching The Bachelor or The Actual Housewives of Salt Lake Metropolis or Love Island. Or, for that matter, if it’s totally different from watching a documentary that exhibits individuals at protests or a real crime collection that enables 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 degree about the way it perhaps shouldn’t exist.” (He ought to know; he makes them.)

The distinction between documentary (or as I want, “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 degree, so that you can watch, and you could’t simply stumble upon these precise characters on the road.

That line, although, is much blurrier than awards classes and critics wish to make it out to be. Once I wrote about this final summer time, I famous a number of the the reason 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 particular person can and sometimes is all accessed by means of the identical display or machine. In case you’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, for example, 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 strategy: shadow an actual particular person and attempt to perceive them from the within out — their decisions, their occupation, their house, their mannerisms — after which basically change into that particular person as a way 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 unsure how the primary day really landed with the actors, who he finds intimidating. (“They’ve a approach of channeling another person’s feelings that I don’t totally 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 appearing class named Thomas and populating the room with a brand new set of actors, who put on the garments and repeat the identical traces as the unique class a day earlier than. There’s even a pretend 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 first-class really college students who thought they had been studying one thing in a category? How did what they stated get communicated to the second class, who I suppose are all actors, in time for them to be taught their “traces”? 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 appearing 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 at the least somewhat humorous that Thomas has a Hamlet poster on his wall on which the massive 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 perfect documentaries aren’t actually about speaking info in a transparent style (that’s journalism). They’re about making us reevaluate the very act of seeing, the best way 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 approach, sounds quite a bit like The Rehearsal — and encounter it in another way.

And in so doing, encounter ourselves in another 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 alleged to be their most emotionally susceptible 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 getting 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 in regards to the divorce in a 2022 profile, Fielder informed Shapiro that this scene precisely depicted his personal proclivities. “You’re seeing me management and never eager to share,” he stated, including that he’s “conscious I’m like that, and so it’s within the present.” Later, he catches himself eager to misinform Shapiro about when he sought remedy following the divorce. He informed 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 correct on the floor of the present and a helpful lens to take a look at what’s happening. 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 part of Angela’s rehearsal — that’s, increase her pretend child along with her — somewhat than solid somebody in that function.

Within the third episode, he finds himself stymied by Patrick’s “technique” within the rehearsal, by which he means Patrick’s considerably simple 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 might 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 making an attempt to determine find out 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 appearing as certainly one of his personal appearing college students, surrounded by actors who’re taking part in different appearing college students. It’s so many levels faraway from actuality that I confess my mind type 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 really like being on digital camera, however I wished to play it cool, like I didn’t care that a lot … Wait, what is this present? Is it a present about an appearing class? Am I alleged to be appearing? One thing doesn’t make sense. In case you’re coaching actors for a present, why would you be filming the coaching? I wished to ask, however I used to be frightened it might appear impolite. I didn’t need to stand out. I wished to impress “Nathan.”

This complete episode causes him to query — or at the least “query,” for the present — his personal strategies, from his precise instructing technique to seemingly mundane issues like asking actors to signal contracts they couldn’t presumably learn rigorously earlier than they agree. Thomas, the actual appearing scholar he tries to kind of change into, tells Nathan that he doesn’t like mendacity to individuals; Nathan realizes that he’s by no means actually understood Thomas. That … oh pricey … we by no means actually know what’s happening inside individuals’s heads.

So there’s a approach of taking a look at The Rehearsal as Nathan Fielder’s big and really costly remedy session for himself, one which implements every kind of methods to get round hangups and emotional challenges that he’s at all times had. That he’s nonetheless processing the ache that comes with going by means of a divorce, in addition to a few of his assumptions in regards to 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, properly, he likes being on digital camera.

With most individuals, this may be interminable, unattainable to observe. The genius on show right here is that each one I need to do is hold watching.

IV

The Rehearsal is … properly, 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 possibly can really feel the rug pulled out from below you, and one thing you assumed was true abruptly 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 almost unattainable to say what we’re actually watching till it’s over. (I type of anticipate it should nonetheless be unattainable when the primary season ends, however I suppose we’ll see.) I’ve deep suspicions about how “actual” Angela is, for example. 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 instructing 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 based mostly on a ebook by mega-bestselling evangelical writer Max Lucado. However a few of what she says — not simply the issues that might scan as “loopy” — appear somewhat too coincidental, to me.

In spite of everything, at the beginning of the third episode, she lectures Nathan (who’s clad in a Batman costume), reminding him that “Not all the pieces is make-believe. Some issues are actual. It’s important to open your eyes to actuality.”

And perhaps that is simply the plight of the movie critic, however I believe most good artwork can’t be evaluated in items; it’s a must to see the form of the entire to know what you’ve simply skilled. It’s like chopping a Picasso in half after which considering what the portray is. You type of get it, however to actually see it, it’s worthwhile 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 stated, 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!; briefly, God created and destroyed many worlds till he lastly acquired 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 achieved 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 known as 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 incorporates a contentious relationship between two brothers? That the doubting Fielder methodology “disciple” in Nathan’s appearing class is known as … Thomas? (In case you had been questioning, there are solely 11 college students within the class.)

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

In any case, speculations about what Fielder is “doing,” in a pedantic approach, with The Rehearsal could also be much less vital than what it does to us. If you end up questioning what precisely you’re watching, then you definitely’re at the least heading in the right direction. “It’s simple to imagine that others suppose the worst of you,” Nathan says on the finish of the fourth episode. “However whenever you assume what others suppose, perhaps all you’re doing is popping them into a personality that solely exists in your thoughts.”

“The good factor,” he concludes, “is usually 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.