Nathan For Himself

Nathan For Himself
On Nathan Fielder's The Rehearsal (2022-)

Nathan Fielder’s new show starts by pointing to itself, “I assume you’ve seen some of my previous work” he asks Kor, the subject of the first episode. Like his previous work, Nathan For You (2013-2017), The Rehearsal (2022-) sets itself up as a reality show parody, though a much more personal one. Instead of helping people fix their struggling business with absurd ideas, he helps people prepare for moments they’ve been avoiding—in Kor’s case, confessing to his trivia team that he lied about having a master’s degree—elaborately recreating real locations where they can rehearse every possible version of these difficult conversations, down to the most minute detail. Nathan tells Kor to take smaller sips of his drink so that a staff member at the bar won’t try to take his empty glass and interrupt at a crucial moment. The Rehearsal isn’t tackling a specific sub-genre of reality television so much as stripping the form of its pretences, the idea of helping people as a thinly veiled excuse to laugh at them. After one particularly poor rehearsal the fake crowd snickers “Who does’t have a masters degree?” (Though it sounds like it could have been dubbed in later?), while the quiz master announces “and, the loser of tonights trivia is: Kor Skeete”. It pushes the cruelty enough to the surface to challenge it, drawing your attention to the construction of it, of what’s only implicit in Love Island or 90 Day Fiancé. Whilst still partaking in it, in a way it’s functioning as usual.

But the first episode is the only one to wholly stick to the premise, it’s a show that resists being talked about episode by episode. It’s not that Richard Brody doesn’t make some smart observations in his much discussed New Yorker article, he just didn’t have the charity to assume that Fielder could make them too. His ability to predict criticism and then fold it into the ever expanding scope of the show is pretty remarkable. Brody says he “can’t relinquish control; his obsession with details, with predicted outcomes, suggests his very failure”, a few episodes later, Nathan—the character as opposed to the director—responds, narrating that he “started to feel like [he] was just solving a puzzle of [his] own design”. Brody’s accusations that he’s “arrogant, cruel, and, above all, indifferent” are echoed even more directly by an actress playing a later episode’s subject, she screams “is my life the joke? Do you sit here at the end of the day with your friends and laugh at me?”

Some of the questions of documentary ethics simply come down to a problem of framing. As Arlin Golden notes, there is an “increasingly common and equally distressing notion that Film and Television are the same medium, with the same standards and quality”. In part this is caused by both being seen on the same screen, it’s not just that Finding Frances, the feature length finale of Nathan For You was screened at the True/False film festival, as Golden mentions, but the opposite. Not TV elevated to film—a privilege extended mostly to a small group of film auteurs, Fielder being one of the exceptions—but both dragged down to content. Something none of us are innocent of, I watched both The Rehearsal and William Graves’ seminal interrogation of the documentary construction Symbiopsychotaxipliasm: Take One (1968) on my laptop. By sitting on these lines The Rehearsal “seeks the same engagement with its own chosen form”. It can only do that with the stakes of a real reality show, no dramatisation would render the same complex set of feelings, of internal conflicts.

I’m sure Brody could argue that addressing isn’t the same as answering, as justifying, and that replicating television’s forms doesn’t override ethics. In Symbiopsychotaxipliasm we see the crew’s secretly filmed discussions about the film they are making, they question the intent of Greaves, they challenge his control. Some wonder if this was part of his plan—he does include so much of their footage in the movie—but others mock the idea, “you believe in God after all”. Fielder never allows that possibility. As he reveals to Kor that he was deceiving him from the start, that their conversation had been rehearsed in a secretly made recreation of his apartment, he is also deceiving us. At a certain point the questions of what’s real and what isn’t fade, they blur as if being brought out of focus; pushed into the background. Anyone who predicted that the final episode would reveal that everyone was an actor but didn’t know anyone else was look foolish now. Much like one of his subjects, we are set up to ask questions Fielder’s not really interested in the answers to.

The shows interest in human behaviour might also seem insincere, maybe even against the soul as Nathan tries to map it all onto a flow chart. Each new branch is another imagined outcome, stretching out wide, but not infinitely. Yet, multiple times his approach works surprisingly well. Kor says he probably wouldn’t confess if he didn’t do well on the day’s quiz, but he’d never cheat, a quiz is “sacrosanct” to him. So, to make sure Kor goes through with it, Nathan plants the answers in hilariously obtuse set ups. Behind a police line an officer sighs “it’s days like these that I hate the Chinese for inventing gun powder”. Though it’s never made clear if Kor clocked on or if Nathan confessed to these sillier lies. More remarkable is the third episode, the furthest the show goes with its stated premise before all but abandoning it. Patrick has had his grandfathers inheritance kept from him by his brother who thinks his girlfriend is a “gold digger”, naturally Patrick wants to confront him about this. Nathan realises that the previous rehearsals have been lacking in emotion, they’re too technical, so he tries to put Patrick and Isaac, the actor playing his Brother, in something like the situation with his real brother.

Off set, Patrick meets Isaac’s supposed grandfather—another actor, of course—who ask them both to help hide his treasure chest. Isaac quickly abandons his responsibilities, just as Patrick’s brother did, leaving Patrick to help dig and wipe the old man’s ass, something he held over his brother after doing for his own grandfather. He’s promised some gold doubloons, or whatever, for his effort. At a later rehearsal—it’s not made clear how much later—Isaac doesn’t show up, Nathan tells the crew that there has been a death in the family: his grandfather. When Isaac does return, he’s reluctant to give the promised gold because of what he’s learnt through the rehearsals about Patrick’s girlfriend; the “real” and the fake conversation start to blur. It’s a totally absurd, stupid recreation, and yet, it works. When they start to rehearse again, Patrick cries, it feels real. So much so that he disappears the next day, maybe it was too much or maybe it was exactly enough. These cartoon reality show set-ups produced an emotion too real to bear, it was all mapped perfectly by Nathan.

The narration at the end of the first episode, along with the use of the song ‘Pure Imagination’, suggests a similar success—“Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it”—Kor doesn’t just confess to his friend, he opens up to her in whole new ways. But, lying about having a degree is such an understandable lie, and a pitiable so much more than contemptible one. it’s not really a surprise her response was so mundane, that she forgave him so easily. Maybe all this practice was just noise complicating something fundamentally simple. As the show develops, Nathan realises his control is not as complete as he first thought. While playing the role of another subject, a student in his acting class, he notices the HBO cameras and questions why they are there. The actors and non-actors are as conscious of being filmed, they know that some kind of expectations are laid on them—maybe specifically thinking of other reality tv they have seen—they’re all dancing with the camera. Increasingly, what’s mocked is less human behaviour and the way it can be manipulated than the attempts to understand it, whether in the material terms of a flow chart, where emotions are just another element to factor into a formula, or in the spiritual terms of Angela.

We first meet Angela in the second episode in what seems like another contained story but continues on through the rest of the series. She want to rehearse a perfect family life that’s creeping further and further away as she moves through her thirties, but that idyllic lifestyle is held together by strings, it always has been. In this case most literally, Fielder’s crew bury fully grown plants for Angela to dig up the next day and a big clock on the wall counts down to when the actors playing her child, Adam, have to switch, since child labour laws only allow so many hours of work. It seems nakedly an excuse to live in a fantasy on HBO’s expense, rather than a way to try and face something. It’s not the only thing she has in common with Nathan, on a date to find a fake husband she claims to be seeing signs, coincidences that tell her it’s going well, she uses her religion to project and manipulate, direct even. She a more combative and complicated subject,  when Nathan comes in as co-parent (after the first one quickly flees) she doesn’t allow him to teach Adam about Judaism, only her bizarre esoteric beliefs about the Satanism of Halloween and Google.

Nathan doesn’t just choose to keep himself on the outside—which some have connected with the experiences of neurodivergent people, particular those with autism for whom planning and practicing social interactions is common—he’s also kept out. Not just as a Jew—they killed Jesus, Angela says—but also, to some extent, as a Canadian. Angela’s incoherent babbling mixture of biblical passages, conspiracy theories and banality evoke a particular American fantasy, ringing of Qanon, Trump and Alex Jones. Nathan admits he hasn’t been to Synagogue for a long time since it’s “so boring”, but it’s fine because Judaism doesn’t want him either. He sneaks Adam to a Jewish tutor who he eventually brings home to confront Angela. She stays calm, if firm, while the tutor jumps to accusations of antisemitism. Afterwards she tells Nathan that he must use his platform to address the lies the media tells about Israel. It seems like every frame that tries to tie the world together is absurd, if not always this bigoted. In the end, he might not have discovered the soul but Nathan has accepted the density of other people. When he sees a real child’s room, after spending so much time in Adam’s fake one, he notices how perfectly placed everything is, none of it by design. “It was a work of art, and it was just real life”.

Brody’s strongest criticism of The Rehearsal is that “the onscreen events merely exemplify, like data points rather than experiences”, because what Fielder is interested in isn’t experience, but thought. The series is coated in his narration, which is a kind of imposition on the material and the people, literalised as he imposes on, inserts himself into, Angela’s rehearsal. Some have come out and said they were happy with their portrayal, and others have proved it to be true, but either way it isn’t really about them. The first episode ends with Nathan confessing that he’d planted the answers to Kor’s sacrosanct quiz, but we cut back to see only the actor playing Kor; it’s another rehearsal. We never find out if Nathan told him for real, that’s not what the scene is about. It’s Nathan’s first steps into his world of pure imagination that he’ll sink deeper and deeper into. He says he’s jealous of Angela’s ability to believe in this fragile illusion, but he prods her into believing—creating situations with personal resonance—and still when he’s not around, we find out she mostly just dicks around the house. She’s hardly a true believer, maybe because it’s not her fantasy she’s living in, but his.

Nathan has constructed a multi-layered fantasy around himself, it can’t be made of stone, a perfect, hermetically sealed world where every possibility has been accounted for, no one could believe that. Angela certainly couldn’t and she believes in demons. It would collapse under any crack, the falseness of the whole taking over from the slightest mistakes, every believable detail revealing its design. It has to be shapeless, a blur of obfuscation, Nathan increasingly notices that he’s forgetting which version of a person he is talking to or talking as. This seals it tightly enough that even when he’s directly confronted by the actress playing Angela about mocking her, it doesn’t break through. When she screams “Do you want to feel something real? You never will. No matter how you try, you never will” he asks if they can do a nicer version. She’s still an actress playing an imagined version of Angela, one imagined mostly by Nathan, shaped by his direction and within his world, his show. When Nathan creates a photo album with Adam to “enhance the feeling of a complete life” it becomes obvious what he’s hiding from, although his recent real-life divorce goes unaddressed—maybe he can’t bare to mention it—it’s echoed when Angela leaves the show. She wonders if they could have been good collaborators if he’d ever gotten outside of himself. Instead, at Adam’s birthday party all the attendees were cast by extras to save money, and so Nathan is surrounded by people who for union reasons can’t say a word; they can only pretend to interact with him.

In a moment of real quiet tragedy, he brings the actress playing Angela back to help him rehearse—or re-do—his interactions with Remy, an incredibly cute child actor who played Adam, but without a father of his own, refuses to stop calling Nathan “Daddy”. He doesn’t want to leave the fantasy either. Angela had already left the show by the time the boundaries were confused, but maybe things would have been better if she’d stayed, if Nathan wasn’t alone. The scenes with Remy play out longer than any others—far from data points—because for the first time Nathan really sees the reality, the damage he’s doing. But Remy’s Mom—whilst obviously saddened by these tragic little tantrums—is surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing. Nathan feels guilty, but not because she’s blames him. She says she knows that Remy will be okay, but other than that she sees herself in him, there’s not really a reason. Something Nathan, who has spend six episodes over-thinking and over-planning, can’t get his head around, and he can’t forgive himself if he can’t even understand why she, one of the people he’s actually wronged, would.

So he tries to see if from her perspective, watching what happened, what he did, in a rehearsal where he plays her. It’s not exactly through her eyes—he accepts that assuming to do that is another kind of projection and control—but the distance gives a startling lucidity. Nathan watches with shame, regret, sadness and confusion at what the hell he’s been doing; it seeps from his eyes. It could just be a way to assuage a guilty conscience—he is looking at himself from himself, another layer of self-absorption—sitting across from the hammy actor playing Remy, he explains that putting him in the show was a weird thing for her, his mother, to do. Or maybe he was just talking as himself, a few moments later he gets confused and calls himself Remy’s dad, when the actor, with the utmost professionalism, reminds him that he was supposed to be his Mom, Nathan looks up with tears in his eyes and says “No, I’m your Dad”. Has reality re-asserted itself through all this obfuscation, or is he just as confused—or as desperate—as Remy was; he’s crying but what he’s saying, the actual words, are total nonsense. But earlier in the episode, he goes to apologise to Angela and she so simply forgives him, she goes on to coat it in a bunch of silly religious nonsense, but that’s okay, because when you look into her eyes, it’s obvious that she meant it. Despite it all, it was real.

References:

  1. “The Cruel and Arrogant Gaze of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal by Richard Brody: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/the-cruel-and-arrogant-gaze-of-nathan-fielders-the-rehearsal
  2. “The Rehearsal isn’t a Documentary” by Arlin Golden (with Sophy Romvari & Robert Greene): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TKS-bZrOon_rAaBzho4XaYZi-cHjsbSnTs-Qv6ZyDWg/edit
  3. “Nathan Fielder’s new comedy The Rehearsal will be familiar to anyone with autism” by Tamara Ray: https://theconversation.com/nathan-fielders-new-comedy-the-rehearsal-will-be-familiar-to-anyone-with-autism-188071
  4. “The Rehearsal Subject Angela Addresses Religious Disputes, Says She’s ‘Satisfied With How the Cut Came Out’” by Ethan Shanfeld: https://variety.com/2022/tv/news/the-rehearsal-angela-episode-5-religion-argument-1235341080/
  5. “The Most Fascinating Guest on 'The Rehearsal,' Who Crashed a Scion TC at 100 MPH, Did Not Enjoy His Time on the Show” by Gita Jackson: https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkgpng/the-most-fascinating-guest-on-the-rehearsal-who-crashed-a-scion-tc-at-100-mph-did-not-enjoy-his-time-on-the-show