Published On: Fri, Jul 15th, 2022

HBO’s ‘The Rehearsal’ is Nathan Fielder’s social experiment on all of us

Over the past few years, HBO and its streaming service, HBO Max, have increasingly released nontraditional comedy shows. After the first two seasons of the New York-based documentary-style show “How To With John Wilson” and picking up the Comedy Central series “Joe Pera Talks With You,” Canadian comic Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal” is the latest in the platform’s attempt to accumulate a specific audience that enjoys awkward, deadpan docu-comedies. 

Unlike his predecessors and previous work in television, Fielder’s new show pushes the comedic boundaries of turning people’s personal lives in a darker, unpredictable direction. And after the interspersed laughs wear off, we are left to ponder: What in the world did we just watch?

Unlike his predecessors and previous work in television, Fielder’s new show pushes the comedic boundaries of turning people’s personal lives in a darker, unpredictable direction.

In the lead-up to the premiere, Fielder — who directed, wrote and stars in “The Rehearsal” — sparked fan theories about the show’s exact premise through mysterious teasers of video monitors and a promotional poster in which he sits at a dinner table with dolls. Many were asking, “What exactly is this?” 

As it turns out, it’s all pretty much in the name. In its debut season, which premiers Friday on HBO Max, the show poses the question: What would it be like to control complicated life scenarios by intricate planning? In other words, a “rehearsal” of some sort. 

Although the show’s premise seems quite psychologically based, that is where Fielder has perfected his style of comedy — which also relies on others to play along. 

Before teaming up with HBO, Fielder amassed a fan base with the Comedy Central series “Nathan for You,” which ran from 2013 to 2017. There, he approached real-life small businesses with purposefully bad ideas, with the intention of finding humor in people’s reactions. With a larger budget and the potential to reach a wider audience, the stakes in “The Rehearsal” are higher. For contrast, where Fielder once dressed up as an elf to help a mall Santa find work in the summer in “Nathan for You,” in “The Rehearsal,” he crafts a simulation for a woman to experience raising a teenager who is using drugs. 

In the first episode of “The Rehearsal,” Fielder’s team constructs a replica of one man’s home and a New York lounge where he regularly plays trivia games to make the man feel more comfortable confessing a lie to his trivia teammate. The series depicts the extensive work that goes into making both of these replicas, down to even the most minor details. To the viewer’s knowledge, Fielder and his HBO team were able to re-create the man’s home in a warehouse under the guise of a gas company checking for a leak. It provides a unique perspective to the show by making it clear just how much Fielder wants to perfect the subject’s rehearsal. Yet, as budgets only stretch so far, his team eventually opts for already-built locations, including a Raising Cane’s.

The darker points of the series felt somewhat overwhelming at times.

Where films such as “The Truman Show” and “Synecdoche, New York” touch on themes of constructing (and living in) a simulated reality for a long period, “The Rehearsal” takes it a step further: into the real world with ordinary participants. Or, as the trivia player describes in the episode, Fielder is a Willy Wonka type, and he’s Charlie Bucket, to which Fielder responds, “I’m the bad guy in this?” 

At times, he is. Or rather, the concept of Fielder attempting to help others find control by controlling them himself teeters on a line between comedy and slight manipulation. As the series progresses, things become tense when people in the simulations realize they are the joke. On separate occasions, he was called an “awful, awful person,” yelled at and accused of starting fights. 

For what it’s worth, Fielder seems to get that he’s playing with fire a bit. During one of the episodes, he tells a group of actors who will play parts in the simulation what’s at stake, “With this show, if your performance isn’t accurate, you could ruin someone’s life.”

In a recent Vulture interview about the series, he seemed to think the risk would be worth the laughs. “It’s sort of universal that people want to have control over their lives,” he said. “There’s something really funny to that compulsion.” 

Given that need for control, the darker points of the series felt somewhat overwhelming at times.

At the end of each episode, you’re left with questions: What does this say about our own existence? Would, or even should, we test the waters of a situation beforehand? Or would the outcome of diving into the unknown be even more destructive? In that way, viewers are made part of the social experiment Fielder has concocted. 

It’s hard to say whether “The Rehearsal” will continue for several seasons or even provide viewers with the answers to these questions in the finale, as only the first five episodes of six were available to preview. Yet, even this speaks to the show’s nature. While Fielder attempts to predict how people will react to conversations, the audience becomes less able to pinpoint where the shifting premise will end up. 

While new audiences might be initially confused, this is nothing new for Fielder fans who are tuning in. And what could only be seen as a good thing is that the Nathan Fielder brand of unpredictability that seems to be in overdrive in “The Rehearsal” will surely be a conversation starter that stands television’s test of time. 

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