Nathan Fielder helps people practice for real life in his surreal docu-comedy The Rehearsal

Over the past decade, cringe comedian Nathan Fielder has satirized the “reality television” formula to hilarious heights of absurdism. From pitching outlandish business ideas to struggling companies on his heralded Comedy Central series Nathan For You, to his production work on the observational docuseries How To With John Wilson – Fielder has an uncanny knack for using a facade of deadpan obliviousness and awkward insecurity to expose the sorts of behavioral quirks and the unsightly warts of the self that people try to hide. In many ways, Fielder’s outrageous stunts and surreal comedy does a better job of helping us understand the modern human condition than the contrived set-ups of actual reality TV. 

Likewise, his latest show, The Rehearsal, is yet another masterpiece of meticulous planning spiraling into spontaneous chaos that seeks to uncover the root of people’s (and Nathan’s own) anxieties through the guise of helping strangers. The Rehearsal, like all of Fielder’s work, is not quite what it seems at first. Described as a series about “the lengths one man will go to reduce the uncertainties of everyday life” – this brilliant six-part HBO docu-comedy follows Fielder as he attempts to help random people via strategic partnerships. Rather than functioning as a weirdo business consultant, he’s now more akin to a life coach, striving to prepare his subjects for uncomfortable confrontations – as well as their sought-after professional, marital, and parental futures – by staging elaborate rehearsals.

The supposed goal of the show is to help real people prepare for difficult conversations or big life changes by putting them through a practice session with actors posing as loved ones, friends, and bystanders. In the pilot episode “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” a geeky New Yorker wishes to confess to a prickly member of his bar trivia team that he doesn’t have an advanced degree. Seems simple enough. But in Fielder’s hands, this scenario necessitates, among other things, the literal construction of a bar identical to the one he frequents in Brooklyn, housed in a warehouse and populated by background actors who’ve been directed by Nathan to agonize over their own motivations. This is even before his client is forced to go through variations of the evening multiple times in order to be prepared for any possible scenario.

In another episode, Angela, a 44-year-old living in Oregon, participates in the show’s most elaborate and ludicrous rehearsal. To help her decide whether or not to have children, Fielder concocts a plan that will allow Angela to simulate raising a son from birth to his 18th birthday over the course of just two months by using child actors. Each week, this kid – dubbed Adam – ages three years. Adding to the chaos is Oregon’s labor laws which state that people under 18 only be allowed to work for four hours. Which means Fielder and his team have to swap out Adams throughout the day. As they try to do it without disrupting the flow of a so-called “normal” day, it leads to hilarious moments like a staffer rushing up to substitute one Adam in a car seat with another while Angela is busy putting groceries in the car. The plight of Angela and her motherhood rehearsal takes up the bulk of The Rehearsal’s first season, even as Fielder spins off to deal with other clients and endeavors like hosting a class for potential rehearsal actors.

What arises from these scenarios are some of the most mind-bending madness ever seen on television – think a non-fiction version of Synecdoche, New York in which Fielder and his crew plunge down a hallucinatory rabbit hole of mimicry until the lines between the real and the unreal hopelessly blur. Fielder fundamentally wants to understand others and, through them, himself. That impulse drives The Rehearsal, whose nominal aim is to empower individuals by so expertly predicting upcoming situations and dynamics that they can confidently ace tomorrow’s big moments. It’s a stab at using rigorous training to eliminate the element of chance in day-to-day experiences, and it turns out to be even wilder and more amusing than it sounds. 

The show’s modus operandi involves not only devising bizarre scenarios but then doubling and tripling down on them until it’s hard to remember what the starting point even was. Fielder explores hopes and fears by deep-diving into a vortex of artificial impersonation where life’s performative aspects are highlighted, its reactive possibilities are examined, and its uncertainties are challenged – all in an effort to eliminate the anxiety and pain that comes from dealing with circumstances out of one’s control. At the same time, Fielder, who is playing a needy and insecure version of himself, becomes as much a part of the rehearsals as the folks he is supposedly assisting, and uses these interactions to reflect on his existential woes. 

By the time its first season concludes, The Rehearsal has transformed into a sprawling, multifaceted inquiry into the highly particular questions and concerns that spawned it in the first place. The show is like a magic trick orchestrated by an eccentric nebbish who’s convinced that, with just a little bit more practice, he can perfect the myriad interactions and unforeseen events that dominate and define our realities. There aren’t many comedy shows that take such ludicrous chances and ask such heady questions that The Rehearsal does. Nor are they lucky enough to be led by someone like Fielder, a comic visionary who has, once again, turned a parody of reality TV into a brilliant dissection of human nature.

Rating: 10/10

The Rehearsal airs on HBO starting Friday, July 15th.