In the penultimate episode of “The Rehearsal,” Nathan Fielder’s docu-comedy series interrogates its own impulses and ethics. While rehearsing a conversation Fielder plans to have with Angela — a woman with whom he embarks on a rehearsal to raise a child with — an actress playing Angela flips his inquisitive nature back onto him. “Is my life a joke to you?” she asks. It’s a question that, despite its convoluted context, prods and penetrates more than any of Nathan’s interactions with the real Angela.
“You’re not the joke,” Fielder sputters back, seemingly speaking off the cuff. His vulnerability in response to this assertion rebuts cutting appraisals of his comedy and character — ones that frame him as unsympathetic or even mean-spirited toward his subjects. “No one’s the joke. The (show’s) situations are funny, but interesting too,” he maintains.
In this moment, “The Rehearsal” stages a self-reflexive inquiry that exhibits its recognition of critical castigations toward its decision to blur the banality of reality with the emulation and mirror image of it. It’s perhaps the best response to a rebuke of the show’s premise because it doesn’t admonish this disgust. Instead, it offers no facile answers, only more ambiguity.
Even within the intrinsically exploitative nature that marks Fielder’s comedy — seen in his previous Comedy Central series “Nathan for You” — the conditions he crafts to elicit the absurd are just as capable of capturing the human experience as the mundane does in seemingly unrestrained moments. Somehow, the more Fielder synthesizes, the more he is able to trigger a perturbing spontaneity.
“Nathan for You” followed Fielder as an unassuming yet twisted business school graduate employing outlandish antics to offer solutions to struggling small businesses. Fielder’s hijinks ranged from the frivolous to the detrimental, always affecting everyday people, while his tactics involved deceiving his participants in an unusually transparent pastiche of reality television.
The Canadian comedian remixes this offbeat concoction of artifice and reality in his new HBO series “The Rehearsal” — a kaleidoscopic mosaic that mines humor from a bizarre, challenging conceit that encroaches further and further in on itself. In the new series, he assists everyday people in preparing for momentous conversations and life events through the eerie, precise construction of sets and actors to mimic these looming situations.
The result is a stunning expansion in scope. At once, the show acts as a wily microcosm of the greater medium of reality television and an ambitious foray into the further mystification of realism and invention. It’s perhaps a creation the world should have seen coming: the natural conclusion of a society enraptured by reality television despite being conscious of the dubious ethics that underpin it. Yes, like most reality television, the subjects on the show have ostensibly consented to the eccentric methodology that Fielder undertakes, perhaps in return for camera time or a deeply idiosyncratic experience.
But ultimately, as is the case within the form of “The Rehearsal,” these participants hold limited power. They have no say in how they’ll be edited, or in shaping the scenarios they are reacting to in the first place, akin to how contestants on “The Bachelor” have little clue how they’ll be represented or how participants on “Survivor” are stuck on an island deprived of sustenance by producers. To the spectator, does the promise of benefit or acquisition sanction this administered manipulation? On the part of the participant, does this promise outweigh any perverse exploitation?
The line between performance and truth in “The Rehearsal” is delicate, but perhaps all that matters is the series’ verisimilitude. It feels real; all of it, the rehearsals just as much as the purported realities. Fielder manages to evoke a motley of emotions that are essential to the human experience: bewilderment, anxiety, shock, sorrow, joy, laughter. They all feel tangible despite viewers feeling like they have entered the peculiar, insular recesses of Fielder’s mind, unable to escape. But with an intricate labyrinth like “The Rehearsal,” with more layers to unfold every time one takes a look, why would one want to escape?