The Rehearsal: Surrender to the inevitable

I’m not lying when I say that The Rehearsal is one of the most inventive shows I’ve seen on recent television. 

I first caught wind of the works of Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder through his Comedy Central show, Nathan For You. However, The Rehearsal is a whole different playing field. Nathan For You explores a critique of prank comedy, reality TV, and capitalist realism by pitching ridiculous ideas to business owners and documenting the great lengths the people in the show would go to get what they want. By the last breaths of Nathan for You, Fielder starts to explore the effects of reality TV into the peripheries of inner, emotional life. In episodes such as Finding Frances and The Hero, he uses his toolset of intrigue and deceit to help the characters in his show while revealing the effects of his premise to the people around him, including himself. The Rehearsal, in a way, is an extension of this idea – Fielder seeks to explore the ideas from The Hero and Finding Frances deeper.

The Rehearsal is unlike anything else I’ve seen on recent TV. The show refuses to be categorized, and with the shroud of mystery regarding the behind-the-scenes, we could never really pin down an expectation of the work. Is it a documentary? Is it reality TV? Is it all fiction? However, the most interesting part of The Rehearsal isn’t just the layers of reality it’s operating on. At the core of its story, The Rehearsal serves as a reckoning in Nathan Fielder’s career: both as the hyperbolic version of himself he plays on-screen and his own career as a creative. For a show that is really hard to define and pin down, this post serves as an effort for me to organize my thoughts and figure out why I enjoy watching this so much.

While watching The Rehearsal, I thought about another artistic work that parallels its themes: Phoebe Bridgers’s sophomore album Punisher. Between the two works, similar themes thread their stories together: the push and pull of whether or not to surrender to your feelings, lying/being a bad liar, and wanting to surrender into belief. To connect these threads, I will put a song from Punisher together with subsections of this article. You’re welcome to listen along!

I’m a bad liar / With a savior complex
“Nathan has a problem with lying. He lies a lot.”

The Rehearsal starts out with an episode that follows a describable pitch: in this show, the on-screen version of Nathan Fielder – I will be referring to him as Nathan, and the real-life Nathan Fielder as Fielder – helps people go through hard situations, usually confessions or conversations with others, through rehearsing the moment before it happens. In the first episode, he helps Kor Skeete, a Brooklyn teacher & trivia enthusiast who’s trying to come clean to his trivia friend Tricia about him lying about having a master’s degree. To accomplish this, Nathan and his team built a replica of the location of the confession – Alligator Lounge – in a warehouse in Greenpoint and had Kor practice as many possible outcomes and strategies as possible with an actor playing Tricia.

The first rehearsed situation in The Rehearsal is that of a lie – Kor lying about having a master’s degree. Kor’s situation is a mirror of Nathan’s entire behavior with him. In one scene, Kor and Nathan bond by talking about their respective divorces in a swimming pool; to avoid getting too deep into the subject, Nathan plans for an elderly swimmer to pass them at the correct moment. In another, Nathan and Kor go skeet shooting, secretly filling both Kor and Nathan’s guns with blanks so they can bond over failure. 

As critics would often discuss, the basis of Fielder’s whole comedy is deceit. In Nathan for You, he uses outrageous pitches and constructs grand scenarios to make his plan go as smooth as possible. This is also used, albeit for a different purpose, in The Rehearsal. We see less of a cocky, bashful, yet socially awkward Nathan a la Nathan for You and more of a vulnerable, retrospective one. In The Rehearsal, the audience is allowed to see inside this persona. This vulnerability is first shown during the ending of the first episode. Nathan is planning to come clean to Kor about one of his lies – he has secretly implanted answers for the trivia night of the confession into extras playing random people during their daily walks. He practices this with an actor playing Kor, and we are shown the worst-case scenario – Kor saying that Nathan is a bad person – which ends up with Nathan deciding not to confess to Kor. 

We see Nathan as a more vulnerable person who is more aware of the nature of his artmaking, and as a result of that, these grand scenarios no longer feel like deceit; it feels like a man who is trying to take control of every single possibility. Any person with anxiety would know the feeling of trying to take control of things that are meant to be out of their control. From the first episode of The Rehearsal, we see Nathan’s thesis very clearly: this is a show about a man who is trying to prove whether or not everything in life is a series of ifs and thens – if life could be codified by considering every single possibility. 

By episode 2, this idea has reached bigger heights: he has devised a rehearsal for Angela, a 40-year-old Oregon woman looking to practice having children before deciding whether or not she should have one. To create this, he rents out a house in suburban/rural Oregon and hires multiple child actors to play Adam – Angela’s “child” – for two months, with Adam’s age increasing by three years weekly, starting from age 0 to age 18. Everything in the house is carefully controlled based on Angela’s ideal house, with cameras in every room and actors hired to play auxiliary roles such as postmen or babysitters. In this house, Nathan is, basically, playing God – he can keep track of every single possible outcome, every single circumstance.

Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything / … / Whatever you want / I’ll be whatever you want
“But no matter how deep I went, there were still parts of Thomas that were a mystery to me. But maybe that’s as close as you can get.”

Acting is a big theme in The Rehearsal. In episode 4, Nathan spent some time establishing an “acting school” in Los Angeles under the Fielder Method name, as he feels the necessity to hire actors with a specific skill set for the show. In the Fielder Method, actors are encouraged to follow a “primary” and to embody their occupation completely, whether they’re a Trader Joe’s cashier, a butcher, or a security guard. The Fielder Method and the other instances of acting in this show recall to my mind the mechanisms of method acting. Method acting, with its most common iteration popularized by Lee Strasberg, demands its actors to look inwards instead of outwards. Strasberg draws from his predecessor, Konstantin Stanislavski, by developing his concept of affective memory into a term called emotional memory. To develop their use of emotional memory, actors are urged to look into past memories of feelings to tap into their characters’ minds. Many forms of method acting we see in popular media take this immersion to a new level, where we would see reports of actors like Daniel Day-Lewis or Jared Leto staying in character throughout the entire shoot and other various degrees of it.

Nathan’s strategy in The Rehearsal picks a few tricks from the Strasberg book to keep his subjects immersed in his rehearsal and, in most cases, is hyperbolized to evoke humor. In the third episode, Nathan helps Oregon man Patrick talk to his brother about a portion of his grandfather’s will. In a turn of events, Nathan realizes that his plan has been “neglecting one key component of every crucial life event: feelings,” so he recreated a similar scenario: he asks the actor playing Patrick’s brother to ask Patrick to help him carry a generator, meeting the actor’s “grandpa” at home (who is also an actor playing a role), and finally ending up with the “grandpa” asking Patrick to help him dig out a stash of gold that he’s going to give him as inheritance, taking on a literal meaning of “gold digger.” This circumstance is mostly comedic, but through Nathan’s eyes, this is part of Patrick’s emotional training to prepare for his talk with his brother. Nathan is trying to plant an emotional memory to make the stakes higher for Patrick, pulling on some of the techniques similar to Strasberg’s.

The plot thickens when instead of being a Willy Wonka figure to his subjects, Nathan immerses himself in his own rehearsal. After a few failures in finding a co-parent for Angela’s parenting rehearsal, Nathan offers himself to be a co-parent in the hopes that it will help him practice to become a parent as well. This time, he participates in a master plan of his own design, immersing himself in a world that he knows is untrue.

Back in Los Angeles in episode 4, Nathan explores this Method-style self-immersion on a smaller scale. Anxious about his teaching methods, he recreates the Fielder Method class’s first meeting, hiring an actor to play himself while he experiences the class in the eyes of Thomas, an actor taking the class. We see Nathan try to truly understand Thomas because, in order to be critical of his own work, he needs to be fully immersed in the world of someone else. Much like Patrick’s rehearsal, Nathan takes this immersion to extreme lengths; after finishing the day and realizing that “this is still my house,” he asks the real Thomas to move into a house similar to his primary’s, so Nathan could live in his and immerse completely in his world. At the end of the experiment, Nathan asks himself how close he could get into Thomas’s world – will it ever be close enough?

I don’t forgive you / But please don’t hold me to it / Born under Scorpio skies / I wanted to see the world / Through your eyes until it happened / Then I changed my mind
“It’s easy to assume that others think the worst of you, but when you assume what others think, maybe all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.”

One of the high points of the recursive reenactments between Nathan and Thomas in episode 4 happens when, finally, Nathan tries to recreate the first class session for the second time and really thinks about what Thomas feels. In a meta moment, Fielder (as Thomas) is reminded that cameras are filming him – he looks into the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and soon enough, we see the cameras themselves, looking at Fielder.

Many have described this scene as Brechtian; for once, we see the cameras filming the scenes, and we see Nathan signing a release form. As an audience, we are looking into a window of the production itself. However, it is also important to revisit Bertolt Brecht’s own theories as well. Saying that a work of art is “Brechtian” refers to Brech’s popularization of the term verfremdungseffekt (defamiliarization effect), shortened as v-effekt. V-effekt uses techniques such as breaking the fourth wall and displaying performance components (cameras, imperfect visual effects, exposed set boundaries) to remind its audience that whatever they’re watching is not real life. In effect, instead of identifying with the character and the emotional life of the story, the audience is forced to look at the story in a bigger picture and espouse a critical eye, not only to the narrative but to the production aspect of the work of art.

This technique of defamiliarization is adapted very well in the last half of episode 4, where, as a result of an extended stay in Los Angeles, Nathan comes home to a fifteen-year-old Adam and not the same six-year-old Adam when he first left. Footage of Nathan and the actor playing Adam discussing acting techniques and scenarios that would result from an absent father is interspersed with footage of Adam and Nathan actually doing these scenarios. The scenes they construct are highly emotional, culminating in a drug overdose.

When this high peak of Adam’s absent father plotline is reached, I am confused about how to feel. On my screen is a highly emotional scenario of a father losing grasp of his son; however, with the creative process shroud unveiled, instead of the scene asking us to be immersed in its emotional world, the context of the scene makes us look at it in a more critical way: these scenarios are supposed to be a challenge for Nathan in his rehearsal, like an emotional obstacle course. And what results becomes, instead of tragedy, comedy. Part of the humor is the confusion, as we can’t help but think about the implications of this obstacle course to the real world for everyone involved. As the actor playing Adam asked “Is that it?” at the end of the episode, we are awoken from the last strands of our identification with the characters in the scenario.

I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing / You know I hate to be alone / I want to be wrong
“I often feel envious of others. The way they can immerse themselves in a world with so little effort. The way they can just believe.”

Throughout the people we meet in The Rehearsal, disbelief is most felt by Nathan himself. There is a captivating scene at the end of episode 3 where Fielder’s assistants would plant random fruits into the ground to allow Angela to simulate tending a garden. This is played for laughs as the assistants plant the most ridiculous vegetables on the ground, such as zucchinis and eggplants. Despite this, Angela still goes on and harvests the vegetables without suspecting a thing. Nathan then reflects on how easily Angela believes in a world of his own construction.

This shouldn’t be a surprise as we see Angela’s evangelism throughout the series, culminating in episode five. In the episode, Angela and Nathan discuss the religion their child should be raised in, and when Nathan brings up the possibility of Judaism, Angela keeps on denying his belief through classic Christian antisemitism. Nathan then takes Adam to study Judaism under Miriam, a local Jewish tutor, secretly. When Miriam finally confronts Angela about her reluctance to consider pluralism and Nathan questions Angela’s commitment to the rehearsal, Angela decides to leave her rehearsal, leaving Nathan to parent on his own. The episode ends with an irony: yes, Nathan is free to raise Adam in the Jewish faith, but in the last scene, he becomes stuck in the middle of Miriam spouting right-wing Zionist talking points.

At this point, Miriam and Angela become a foil for each other. Knowing that Zionism and evangelism are both sides of the blade of the US empire, it is fair to say that both Miriam and Angela are entrenched in the realities that they constructed for themselves; Angela is so convinced that the world revolves around Jesus Christ, and Miriam is so convinced that Isra*el is a “light of all nations” and that ethnic cleansing is justified. There is no doubt that these views are bigoted. However, it is also important to consider that being lured into propaganda doesn’t require much effort. After learning about constant bad news around the world and looking past talking points and propaganda, it’s easy to think that the world is not as hopeful as others may think. And sometimes, that jealousy of not having to think about the state of the world that much will definitely creep in.

This jealousy parallels Nathan’s role in the whole rehearsal as well. He is rehearsing to be a parent; however, he is totally in control of the whole simulation. He can see beyond the camera lens, beyond the buried zucchini, but most importantly, beyond the scenarios he has constructed for himself. In this episode, Nathan longs for the ability to surrender – to give in.

When you saw the dead little bird, you started cryin’ / But you know the killer doesn’t understand
“You know I’m not your real dad, right?”

In the last episode of The Rehearsal, we see Nathan face the consequences of his actions. Throughout the parenting rehearsal, Nathan bonds with one of the 6-year-old actors, Remy. Being fatherless, Remy struggles to understand the concept of pretend-daddy, and once he forms a bond with Nathan, he sticks with that bond, even outside the context of the rehearsal.

This causes Nathan to reflect on the whole design of the rehearsal. Throughout Fielder’s body of work, we see Nathan having trouble connecting with other people – starting from business owners constantly rejecting his requests to hang out, a private investigator calling him “the wizard of loneliness,” to him paying a sex worker on Comedy Central money. In that context, when Nathan observes his own bond with Remy and how much that bond means to Remy, it comes as a surprise for Nathan, and it makes him question not only the whole reality of the show but also himself and his art.

Through the rest of the episode, Nathan tries to reason with his own confusion, digging through every possible circumstance: experimenting with a colder demeanor, having a grown man playing 6-year-old Adam, practicing his dialogue with an actor playing Remy’s mother, and even reconnecting with Angela. This absurd, far-reaching reasoning is a product of an anxious brain, and it has an absurd effect when translated into the screen. 

In one of these efforts, Nathan acts as Remy’s mother and has Liam, the actor for 9-year-old Adam, act as Remy. He brings on fake Nathan from episode 4 and reenacts Remy’s entire involvement in the show, from his audition to scenes where Nathan visits him after the shoot. Similar to episode 4, he sees himself through another person’s eyes. However, something really clicked this time. In the last scene of the season, Nathan, as Remy’s mom, emotionally tells fake Remy his own takeaways from the show: that Nathan is “just figuring stuff out and messing up along the way” and his confessional that he thinks that “it’s a good thing that you’re sad; because it shows that you have a heart.” In the end, he mistakenly says that he is Remy’s dad. When the actor playing Remy corrects him, Nathan asserts that no, “I’m your dad.”

Nathan comes to the reckoning that he is lying to himself. His well-constructed world of the rehearsal came crashing down as he observed himself through the eyes of Remy’s mother. This is a similar situation as when he played Thomas in episode four, but with the added stakes of his own real connection with Remy, he finally realizes that his bond with Remy and his ability to form a connection allows him to, finally, feel something real.

An acting theory like The Method requires actors to tap into a space that looks inwards, creating a world that is so centered on their trickery of themselves. In The Rehearsal, Fielder creating a convincing reality for him to rehearse to be a father through extreme measures is no different than Robert De Niro obtaining a cab license for his role in Taxi Driver. However, can we actually tap into the full human experience in this way? For actors, you only need a part of others’ lives to be able to jump into a role. But for rehearsals pertaining to life events, is there a surefire way to guarantee that everything is knowable and predictable?

All the skeletons you hide / Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine
“Do you want to feel something real?”

In the last scene of the season, Nathan finally surrenders.  Nathan is no longer the same person who restrains himself from confessing to Kor Skeet; he doesn’t try to codify every action into ifs and thens. Nathan realizes that there are indeed parts of our lives that are uncontrollable and inevitable and to just surrender to knowing that there are these unknowns. Nathan is now going through the same thing that Patrick experiences with the fake grandpa – the ramifications of the rehearsal result in not only the real-life feelings of Remy but Nathan’s as well.

We must not forget that there is another layer to The Rehearsal: the audience watching at home. Episode 6 guides its viewers through an emotional whiplash – one second, we see Nathan calming down a Remy who doesn’t want to leave the set, and the next second, we see the extras in the birthday party not saying a word because union rules prohibit them from speaking. The biggest of these emotional whiplash comes in the very last scene, where after Nathan (as Remy’s mother) had a conversation with Liam (as Remy), they get up to play, and we see Nathan’s exposed butt crack. The emotions that the viewers go through these few seconds are jarring; it’s almost like Fielder is trying to remind us to get up and stop crying – this is a comedy show! 

On one hand, we can see how Fielder’s humor throughout the show can serve as a form of v-effekt. In episode 4, as we go deep into the drug overdose scene, we see two actors from the Fielder method class playing EMTs, and the scene ends with Adam running off from his stretcher – these two devices shatter our emotional immersion throughout the episode. Nathan’s own emotional struggle with his bond with Remy is distracted by his absurd idea of having an adult playing Remy – the pinnacle of the joke being a shot of the grown-up in Remy’s clothes vaping outside the house.  That last shot of Nathan’s butt crack wakes the audience up from the heavy emotional lift – the audience will see that, and whether or not they want it, they will laugh. In itself, it acts as a v-effekt.

Is there anything else that we can conclude from that last shot? There is an interesting exercise Strasberg uses in his pedagogy that resonates with that gag. In the private moment exercise, actors will act out a moment that they wouldn’t do with anyone around – actions that they would stop doing once another person walks into a room, such as singing/talking to themselves or picking their nose. This exercise aims for actors to be able to do vulnerable things unconsciously – to be able to be “private in public.” These moments are embarrassing, which is why Strasberg urged actors to tap into them so that they can be truthful in their performances.

In Finding Frances, Fielder explores this relationship between people’s behaviors on-camera and off camera. It’s the same case with The Rehearsal. Sitting down on the floor and realizing that your pants have sagged down when you stand up is a private moment that you won’t let anyone see – similar to Strasberg’s exercise. Our internal lives are defined by our comfort with ourselves and our comfort with domesticity and family. Maybe, finally, Nathan is comfortable with domesticity; it’s proof that although the rehearsal didn’t work completely, he found meaning through embracing the inevitable.

Whether or not The Rehearsal serves as reality TV, documentary, improv comedy, or just a straight-up TV drama, it tells a poignant story of a man’s search for meaning in a meaningless world. And that, in itself, is what makes it worth watching.

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