HBO's Documentary 'The Rehearsal' Traps Nathan Fielder in His Own Brain

The 'Nathan For You' star pushes his prank-comedy methods to bleaker, existential territory in his new series about over-preparing for life's challenges.

nathan fielder in the rehersal
HBO

In the first season of Nathan Fielder's brilliant business-improvement series Nathan For You, the deadpan comedian staged an experiment called "The Claw of Shame," where he had to unlock a pair of handcuffs in 90 seconds before a robot arm pulled down his pants and exposed his genitals to a crowd of onlooking children. In a show packed with outrageous stunts, it's one of the most memorable and often gets cited when anyone attempts to explain the appeal of the Canadian comic's humiliation-obsessed sensibility. The complexity of the prank, particularly the way Fielder commits to it with such unrelenting focus and attention to detail, is what makes it so funny and absurd. He'll risk embarrassment—or, in the case of "The Claw of Shame," jail time for being a sex criminal—for your amusement.

On the surface, his new HBO series The Rehearsal, which follows the comedian as he helps ordinary people prepare for important events in their lives by "rehearsing" them in elaborate reenactments, promises to be an even more daring act of self-exposure: Stripping away the reality TV artifice of his Comedy Central show, we're now peering into Fielder's soul. But with Fielder, this question always comes up: Is the show really doing what he says it's doing? Watching "The Claw of Shame," most viewers know on some level that Fielder wouldn't have aired (or performed) the prank if he didn't know he was going to succeed. Similarly, The Rehearsal tests the limits of control for a control-freak who clearly relishes the chance to play lab rat in his own self-designed experiments.

nathan fielder in the rehearsal
HBO

The Rehearsal has a self-help-adjacent premise: He's doing this to give back. Fielder notes that his old show required him to run through potential scenarios over and over in order to get the desired outcome. In typically bone dry voice-over, he wonders if he can do that in real life, providing assistance to people as they manage everyday challenges by creating environments for them to test out certain pathways, calibrating the emotional reactions and the conversational tactics. The result lands somewhere between therapy, an improv-comedy class, and a conceptual art project. The first episode, arguably the simplest, involves him helping a man explain to his trivia team partner that he's been lying about his educational background for decades.

To help prepare the man for this conversation, Fielder builds an exact replica of Alligator Lounge, the Brooklyn bar the man frequents, hires actors to play his friend and the patrons at the bar, and, through subterfuge, gets the trivia answers to a future round of the game and feeds the information to the man through staged interactions. Again, this is the simple one. In subsequent episodes, Fielder moves the replica of the bar to Oregon so he can have a spot to unwind from the stress of making the show, one of the many hilarious nods to the size of the budget allowed by working with HBO. The show only gets denser as it goes, turning into a hall of mirrors that questions the usefulness of its transparently ridiculous "method" and interrogates Fielder's inability to be emotionally present in his own life.

If you enjoy Fielder's comedy, the first thing you'll notice about The Rehearal's debut episode is that it's less joke-heavy than Nathan For You, a show that consistently mined huge laughs out of parodying the excesses of entrepreneurial culture in America and stylistic tics of shows like Shark Tank. (The opening credits featured Fielder saying he graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with "really good grades.") More explicitly philosophical and existential in its leanings, The Rehearsal gets very meta very fast. There's a reason most reviews make a comparison between The Rehearsal and Charlie Kauffman's similarly elaborate Synecdoche, New York, a 2008 postmodern farce about a theater director (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) receiving a MacArthur Fellowship and subsequently crafting a reality-blurring production that mirrors his own life. (The show would also pair well with Ondi Timoner's 2008 doc We Live in Public.)

For better or worse, The Rehearsal is unquestionably the type of show you make after being declared a genius for years. Fielder was already chafing against the conceptual restraints of Nathan for You when the show aired its feature-length finale "Finding Frances." Like that episode, The Rehearsal leans into the process-oriented questions about truth that have consumed non-fiction filmmakers since the form's inception. The voice-over, the credits, and especially the music, a vaguely menacing string-filled score, all carry the aroma of "good taste," putting this project more in line with the "high-brow" work of (avowed Fielder fan) Errol Morris than the more "low-brow" work of, say, the Impractical Jokers or Punk'd. As with almost all Fielder projects, the lines are blurry: Is he parodying "prestige" documentary fare or imitating "elevated" signifiers in pursuit of more acclaim? It's impossible to really know. That uncertainty is part of the joke—I think? 

I found The Rehearsal to be endlessly fascinating and puzzling. (The sixth and final episode was not provided to the press, so I have no idea how it ends.) Some viewers will likely find it excruciating in its awkwardness and perhaps cruel in its construction. Unlike How to With John Wilson, the more cheerful HBO docuseries that Fielder produces, The Rehearsal has a tone of creeping dread. Perhaps more importantly, it feels like it comes from a place of profound self-loathing, which will potentially make it harder for many to connect with. You might think the constant questioning is all a put-on and that Fielder's self-reflexive musings are just a sophisticated form of trolling. Like watching a magic act, there's a suspension of disbelief required. Or, as Fielder puts it towards the end of one episode, "There are only so many ways to deceive yourself."

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.