The Rehearsal: Nathan Fielder gets nightmarishly self-reflexive

The Canadian comedian’s discomfiting new show is one of the most ambitious, hilarious, mutable and increasingly knotty documentary programmes of the year.

The Rehearsal (2022)

In the finale of his cult kind-of-reality show, Nathan for You (2013-17), comedian Nathan Fielder sought to reunite a man with his lost love. He went as far as hiring an actress to play the woman so that their fateful meeting could be rehearsed and perfected ahead of time. The potential of this technique must have struck a chord: Fielder’s new show, The Rehearsal, takes the same notion and runs with it full tilt, producing one of the most ambitious, mutable, often hilarious, and increasingly knotty documentary programmes of the year.

The premise is straightforward, though its application and connotations are anything but. On the classifieds website Craigslist, Fielder places a vague advert asking, “Is there something you’re avoiding?” A handful of respondents are then offered the opportunity to undergo a Fielder-facilitated rehearsal – for a confession to a friend, a difficult conversation with a relative, or even the decision to have a baby. These rehearsals are meticulously mounted, with the production team recreating real-life locations and actors embodying the other people involved. Through the process, Fielder – or perhaps it is better to differentiate between the creator and his on-screen persona, ‘Nathan’ – records every success and misstep, crafting sprawling flow diagrams that allow even the tiniest details to be finessed.

When you look at the permutations laid out, the scope of this entire project is dizzying. The physical production alone is a bravura undertaking. One participant, a woman named Angela, moves into a beautiful detached home while the first 18 years of her potential baby’s life are rehearsed over a condensed two-month period. Child actors are constantly rotated as her son, ‘Adam,’ grows older every few days in an accelerated simulation of maturation. Meanwhile, the crew push carrots into the vegetable patch outside, so that Angela can realistically harvest the crops she’d sewn into yesterday’s soil. The opening episode is similarly painstaking: when 50-year-old teacher Kor is shown a full replica of his favourite New York trivia bar inside an Oregon warehouse, he is struck dumb by the sheer effort. The interior is copied precisely, down to torn seat cushions and crooked picture frames. The intention is for Kor, who plans to reveal a decade-old lie to his friend, Trisha, to be 100% prepared for every conceivable eventuality.

Of course, real life isn’t like that. When Kor finally does meet Trisha, and the opportune pre-planned moment of confession arises, he is too nervous. Nathan can’t understand what could possibly be wrong and – as in several similar moments – can only reflect on this by re-assessing his methodology. Because, while Kor and Angela might be the genuine flesh-and-blood people caught in the middle of Nathan’s scheme, Nathan and his commitment to his worldview are absolutely the show’s primary subjects.

The effect of this is both discomfiting and reassuring in equal measure. There is undeniably a constant niggle in the viewer’s mind about the ethical implications of what Nathan is doing. Even beyond the pre-defined theatre of the rehearsal space, he manipulates people and lies to them to further his experiment. As a result, there is an ever-present concern that the uneven distribution of power is setting the participants up as punchlines. In an article for the New Yorker on the finale of Nathan for You, revered documentarian Errol Morris described the very unease that Fielder elicits, never sure if we are supposed to be laughing and whether doing so makes us bad people. At the same time, Nathan’s own incomparably awkward presence at the very centre of the whole enterprise means that it is often he – his choices, his shortcomings, his solipsism – who is open to the biggest scrutiny.

In a show all about manufactured verisimilitude, there is always a wariness to take anything at face value, and it is difficult – as with Fielder’s other work – to be entirely confident about how much is staged and what is ‘real.’ Still, as the six-episode series progresses into its second half, Nathan himself becomes ever more enmeshed in his productions and events spiral into an almost nightmarish self-reflexivity. As they do so, attention is relentlessly drawn to the ways in which Nathan seeks to control others. This not only pre-empts potential criticism but also skewers the notion that any form of reality television isn’t replete with these fabrications and imbalances. It’s impossible to determine what is real and what isn’t in The Rehearsal, but then, that’s the case far more often than we might like to admit.

► The Rehearsal is available to stream on NOW TV now.