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The Rehearsal review — a reality comedy that breaks all the rules, even its own

The Rehearsal review — a reality comedy that breaks all the rules, even its own
'The Rehearsal'. Image: courtesy of Showmax

Nathan Fielder’s new HBO comedy docuseries is a surreal social experiment that goes to elaborate lengths to help ordinary people rehearse for key moments, unearthing fascinating ethical dilemmas that shift the whole show.

Nathan Fielder is a Canadian comedian with a circus mind and the expression of a brick wall. He’s the kind of dorky, awkward savant whose eccentric genius flourishes in a space like HBO. His work is playful, funny, awkward and unique, none more so than How To With John Wilson, which he executive produced. First and foremost, he’s a disruptor — his shtick is seeing how far people are willing to push boundaries in the name of TV. 

His first big hit, Nathan For You, saw stone-faced Fielder coaching owners of actual small businesses by facilitating ridiculously ambitious or silly business plans of his design, which were not always actually intended to see the business succeed. Understandably, Fielder developed a reputation for playing fast and loose with strangers’ lives and taking comedy bits to the extreme. His latest show, The Rehearsal, is more spectacular and more ethically dubious than anything he’s ever done.

Fielder starts the show by admitting, “I’m not good at meeting people for the first time. So I have to work to offset that. Humour is my go-to instinct, but every joke is a gamble”. He also speaks about suffering from anxiety and makes frequent use of masking, a social survival strategy which uses mimicked and prepared behaviours to fit in and make conversations run smoother.

The concept for The Rehearsal builds on this idea, and it’s as simple as it is insane — why not prepare that way for the most important moments of your life? And how far could you take that preparation if money was no object? Fielder put a vague Craigslist post on the internet saying simply: “TV Opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding?”. Using elaborate recreated sets, trained actors, social espionage, probability flow charts, and anything else at his disposal, he attempted to help his clients rehearse and prepare for the interactions they’d been putting off. 

'The Rehearsal'. Image: courtesy of Showmax

‘The Rehearsal’. Image: courtesy of Showmax

In episode 1, Fielder meets an eccentric trivia enthusiast hoping to come clean to a friend about a 20-year lie regarding his education. After chatting for a few minutes, Fielder divulges that he has practiced this interaction dozens of times with trained actors in a replica of the man’s home. “Remember that time when those two men came by to investigate the leak in your building? Well there wasn’t a leak in your building, that was my team”. It’s like a hammed-up plot reveal in a psychological thriller, made all the more creepy by Fielder’s deadpan tone.

The lengths to which the team goes in recreating the teacher’s house is truly spooky and seems a strange use of resources, but it’s nothing compared to the rehearsal itself. In the interest of helping this man confess his fib, Fielder builds a full-scale functional replica of a Brooklyn bar, down to the wear and tear on the seats. He sends a trained actress in disguise to meet the friend being confessed to, so as to study her mannerisms and portray her more accurately during the teacher’s rehearsals of the confession.

Fielder maps out the interaction with flow charts, plotting every sentence to the other person’s possible reactions to track “the optimal path” through the conversation. He even subtly makes sure the teacher knows all the answers to the trivia questions on the night so that he won’t be distracted by their team doing badly (this despite the man’s strong aversion to cheating). The entire production feels like a convoluted version of The Truman Show whereby the clients are both pulling the strings, and the puppets themselves. 

Amazingly, even with his Klingon demeanour, Fielder is seldom the oddball onscreen. The clients he chooses are quirky characters. There is a deliciously cringey humour to his flatness and other peoples’ reaction to it. In one mundane and awkwardly brilliant scene, he and the teacher repeat the phrase “Cheap Chick in the City” a whopping seven times. Unfortunately, the second client was more difficult than quirky …

In episode 2 Fielder takes on the outrageous task of simulating the parenting of a child from 0-18 over the course of two months so that a 44-year-old born-again Christian woman named Angela can experience what it would be like to adopt a child. Angela has been “putting off” starting a family to the same extent that teenage girls have been “putting off” marrying Harry Styles. Fielder feeds into Angela’s delusional vision of her future, living off the grid in a huge house in Oregon with a working husband, and hiring scores of child actors to play her rapidly ageing son. This is when things veer pretty radically off the rails.   

'The Rehearsal'. Image: courtesy of Showmax

‘The Rehearsal’. Image: courtesy of Showmax

Angela begins using the show as a two-month vacation in her dream home, and the enormous cost of the mummery finally catches up with Fielder, forcing him to change the entire production to focus on this bizarre fictional family, and step in as the pretend father. At this point, the stakes start to feel real, and Fielder starts running into fascinating ethical dilemmas around the production of the show itself.

To comply with US limitations on child-acting, Fielder’s team brings in a horde of kids who must be switched when Angela isn’t looking to maintain the illusion of the rehearsal. Watching a team of hooded men climb in through a window and swap a baby from a crib is inherently uncomfortable (as well as entertainingly farcical) but it’s the slightly older kids, circa 6 years old who best show the problems with child-acting. 

Fielder starts raising his pretend kid to be Jewish (mostly to mess with Angela) but one of the child actors becomes confused about his religion and his mother asks Fielder to sit him down and explain that Judaism is just pretend, Jesus is real and Fielder is going to burn in hell (all said with a biting sarcasm which neither the boy nor his mom seemed to pick up on). 

A different child actor, whose father left when he was a baby, becomes attached to Nathan and believes he is his actual daddy, no matter how many times Fielder insists he is not, after the fact. The involvement of these kids seems cruel, and yet it’s no different from any other production that uses child actors, except that their vulnerability is not hidden behind the scenes. 

'The Rehearsal'. Image: courtesy of Showmax

‘The Rehearsal’. Image: courtesy of Showmax

There is an interesting point during one of the rehearsals where a client makes an anti-Semitic comment to the person playing his brother. Fielder, who is Jewish himself, is faced with what to do — either stop him from saying anti-Semitic things altogether or allow it because that’s how he would communicate naturally. This client eventually opted out of the experiment, presumably unhappy about the extent to which he was being deceived, but the footage from his earlier participation is still featured in the show. 

The Rehearsal walks this razor edge of TV ethics. Fielder is a genie granting spectacular wishes with baffling resources, but there always seems to be a catch that forces his willing participants to sacrifice something of themselves in the end. In this way, he takes advantage of them. It feels wrong, and yet isn’t that what all reality TV does? 

The only difference is that here it is on display for all to see. The lucky guests are the product being sold, and their well-being is given a back seat to whatever kind of entertainment they can provide.

It’s clear that The Rehearsal initially intended to help a different person prepare for a big moment in each episode, but almost as soon as it had begun, the complexity of the undertaking and the vast opportunities for ethical problems shifted the focus onto this one particularly absurd simulation, leaving the viewer pondering the point of it all. Fiedler puts it well himself in the last episode: “What on earth was I doing? Everything about this whole rehearsal felt so trivial now.”

Realising that he has become trapped by the inane rules of a game he created, Fielder wields the remaining resources and episodes of the show to meta-analyse how the ethics of the show itself could have been handled differently. HBO has renewed the show for a second season, but there is no telling whether it will attempt to work on the original premise or push further into earnest comedic introspection.

The Rehearsal turned out to be an entirely different social experiment from the one it intended to be. At all points, it has the viewer baffled, uncomfortable, amused, unsure whether to keep watching and absolutely desperate to find out where it goes next. DM/ ML

The Rehearsal is available in South Africa on Showmax.
You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

In case you missed it, also read ‘Olga’ – a powerful film about the guilt of escaping war

‘Olga’ – a powerful film about the guilt of escaping war

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