The Rehearsal

my life has literally felt like a bunch of these episodes

questionable ethics of his behavior as The Rehearsal’s central issue. The series ostensibly examines how much of life, rehearsed or not, is subject to the rules of performance and how gaming out relationships or human interactions precludes vulnerability and self-awareness. But more than those heady philosophical concepts, it’s about Nathan Fielder—both the character and the man—trying and failing to fit in with the world around him.

To counterbalance this, Fielder often puts himself at the center of unflattering situations in which he appears as bad as, or worse than, his subjects. Though he’s not quite an equal opportunity offender, Nathan never comes across as anything less than a desperate, anxious person struggling to impress strangers. If misery loves company, so does discomfort. 

he Rehearsal takes its cues from a number of previous films, all of which interrogate the effect of a camera, or an artificial construct like a play or a documentary, on a group of people. These include Albert Brooks’s Real Life, which follows a fictional version of the director embedding himself with an American family in order to capture their lives with unvarnished realism, only to quickly alter the results in favor of drama; Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, in which an ailing, misanthropic theater director constructs a mimetic reproduction of the real world inside a large warehouse; and William Greaves’s metadocumentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take One, where multiple nesting documentary crews film each other filming a single scene to deconstruct the creation of fiction. The Rehearsal also falls in line with the last half-century of avant-garde documentaries that formally catechize the construction of reality. What unites The Rehearsal’s many influences is a simple truth: As soon as someone steps behind a camera and another person steps in front of it, objectivity ceases to exist.

If The Rehearsal is something of a spiritual sequel to Nathan for You(they both feature the Nathan character offering a service to help clients with aspects of their professional or personal lives), then it’s possible to consider the former an interrogation of the latter’s practices. The ethical questions of Nathan for You were mitigated by its formal trick: flipping the shady practices and drama of reality television into self-deprecating comedy. The twist with The Rehearsal is that, despite the preponderance of Fielder’s deadpan jokes, it resembles a psychological drama more than it does a comedy. Within such a framework, both Fielder’s tactics and Nathan’s demeanor read much differently, which the show openly acknowledges and embraces. 

The main plot line in The Rehearsal involves Angela, a devout Christian who wants to prepare for the prospect of motherhood. Nathan sets her up in an Oregon farmhouse with a roving cast of child actors to play her fake son, Adam. After a prospective coparent for Angela falls through, Nathan steps in to play the role himself, directly implicating himself in the fake scenario. Eventually, Nathan’s own interests in fatherhood take over Angela’s rehearsal. While the initial plan was for Adam to go through multiple ages played by different actors, Nathan’s guilt regarding his absence from “home” to conduct other rehearsals leads him to self-flagellate by directing the actor playing the teenage Adam to develop a resentful attitude and a drug problem. But Nathan eventually disrupts the plan and reverts Adam back to a child. Similarly, his anxiety regarding Adam’s lack of Jewish faith pushes him to send the child to a rabbi behind Angela’s back, culminating in an ugly confrontation between a Zionist rabbi and a fundamentalist Christian.

Nathan for You was only partially about Nathan’s foibles and selfishness, but The Rehearsalmakes his emotional impotence the centerpiece of the drama at hand. His inability to develop intimacy or truth from each simulated scenario he crafts, combined with the sheer impossibility of mapping out every iteration of a given situation, only serves to amplify his shame and alienation. Nathan connects well with Adam in the confines of the rehearsal, but only because the child actors he hires are instructed to bond with him. Meanwhile, his interactions with Angela are more fraught because of her religious zealotry and her wavering commitment to the reality of the rehearsal. Once Nathan decides to confront her about her dedication, he rehearses the situation with an actress who rebukes the baneful premise of The Rehearsal and suggests the real issue lies in Nathan’s emotional detachment.

This culminates in the season finale, when it’s revealed that Remi, one of the 6-year-old actors who played Adam, has grown attached to Nathan as a father figure—which is compounded by the absence of a father in Remi’s life—and seems confused by the difference between real life and the TV show. Nathan’s overwhelming guilt in having potentially traumatized Remi compels him to dismantle The Rehearsal’s thin fourth wall and attempt to delineate the difference between fiction and reality for the small child. Though Remi eventually seems to understand the difference (he finally calls Nathan his “TV friend” instead of “Daddy”), the scenes featuring Remi reacting to the truth of the situation, as well as Nathan’s frantic attempts to right his wrong, are disquieting and uncomfortable.