Television

The Most Unpredictable Show on Television Is Going Exactly According to Plan

Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is a puzzle-box show with no easy answers.

A man in a fleece jacket stands in front of a TV filled with smaller screens, as two men in chairs monitor them.
The Rehearsal’s Nathan Fielder, watching. HBO

Somewhere, perhaps in a control center filled with screens, perhaps in a studio apartment with two cats and a roach trap by the toilet, Nathan Fielder is watching us watch The Rehearsal. The HBO series has generated reams of discourse, impassioned tweets, and a flood of highly amusing TikToks in the month since its debut, and with only one episode left to go, there’s no telling what will happen next. But whatever it is, one thing is certain: People will be talking about it.

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Early in the first episode, Fielder explains that during the process of making his Comedy Central series Nathan for You, a semi-parodic gloss on reality TV shows, he “became very good at predicting how people would react in a future situation.” Nathan, the version of himself Fielder plays on The Rehearsal, is actually terrible at understanding other people, but the show itself has been assembled with a precision, and a prescience, that borders on fiendish. When I watched the first five episodes weeks before the premiere, I was struck above all by the show’s ability to change what it seemed to be from one episode to the next, sometimes from moment to moment—a quality that made it fascinating but also seemed to doom it to at best cult-hit status. (HBO debuting new episodes at 11:30 p.m. Friday nights certainly wasn’t going to help.) But a few days after the first episode dropped, it was clear I’d underestimated both Fielder and his audience. People weren’t just watching The Rehearsal: they were thinking about it, arguing over it, replaying sections of it over and over until the memes took on a life of their own. And the more these reactions proliferate, the more it feels like we’re all acting according to Nathan Fielder’s plan, asking the questions he wanted us to ask and searching for answers that only he knows.

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Alongside this swelling fandom, another strain of interpretation has taken hold: Fielder as a devious manipulator exploiting his subjects for his own gain. As with Nathan for You, The Rehearsal sets up Fielder as a fairy godmother, using his powers—namely the budget and persuasive power of a TV production—to help people realize their dreams. But where the goals of Nathan for You’s small business owners were relatively concrete and achievable, The Rehearsal’s are more amorphous and interpersonal. The idea is to help people navigate difficult moments in their lives by allowing them to rehearse those moments in advance—a familiar technique in psychotherapy, or even to anyone who’s ever role-played a job interview. But Nathan has an unusually concrete notion of what “pre-creating” that moment means. As he explains to Kor, the 50-year-old teacher who will be his first subject, he’s going to create a meticulous replica of the location where the fraught conversation will take place, a Brooklyn bar called the Alligator Lounge, down to the half-deflated smiley-face balloon in the rafters. (A running gag throughout the series is just how much of HBO’s money Fielder can spend on his quixotic pursuits.) That will allow Kor to workshop such niggling details as how to secure his favorite table (with his hat), what greeting to use when his friend Tricia arrives (he settles on the vaguely flirtatious “Trish the dish”), and at what point in the evening to broach the subject he’s been avoiding for years—the fact that he’s been lying to the members of his trivia team about having a master’s degree. As proof that the method works, Nathan cites the conversation he and Kor are having at that precise instant, which is when he, and the show, reveal that this encounter has itself been rehearsed “dozens of times,” in a facsimile of Kor’s apartment, with an actor playing Kor.

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It’s the first of many times The Rehearsal pulls the rug out from under its audience, revealing that what we’ve just seen wasn’t what we thought it was—and that we need to think twice about every scene from that moment on. The show’s critics—notably the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who called Nathan’s treatment of Kor “arrogant, cruel, and above all, indifferent“—have questioned the ethics of the way Fielder deals with his subjects, and accused him of exploiting their dilemmas to his own ends. (Kor’s anxiety about his fraudulent secondary education may seem comically overblown, but it’s vitally important to him.) The all-purpose defense is that this is reality television, and anyone who doesn’t understand what signing onto a reality show entails at this point has only themselves to blame. But as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk argued, “Even if they think they’re playing along … the process seems destined to betray them.” Reality TV subjects sign their waivers and give their consent, but how informed could that consent be with a show like The Rehearsal, which is difficult to describe even after you’ve seen it? How could they know what they were getting into when we don’t even know what we’re watching?

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The idea that The Rehearsal’s participants have been tricked into making Fielder’s show rests on the idea that its transparency about its own process is straightforward: that when Nathan explains to Kor what a rehearsal is, at least one of them is having that conversation for the very first time. But there’s no way to know if that’s actually the case, because Fielder had the show’s participants sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them from revealing anything, including the extent to which they were in on the joke. (A few have been tracked down for interviews, but their comments are largely confined to how they feel about their onscreen presentation.) What is clear is that the show wants us to feel uneasy about our relationship to it—that, more specifically, Nathan Fielder wants us to feel uneasy about him. Fielder has often been associated with cringe comedy: The Forward called Nathan for You the most uncomfortable show on television,” and the Independent called The Rehearsal the most uncomfortable show ever made.” But with a few exceptions, like the moment when a rehearsal subject in the third episode abruptly busts out an anti-Semitic slur, The Rehearsal’s uneasiness isn’t primarily a product of secondhand discomfort. It’s driven by Nathan himself, whose impenetrable deadpan is both the series’ central obstacle and its secret weapon. The ethical queasiness that comes from not being able to figure out what Nathan is up to isn’t a byproduct of the show—it’s the heart.

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In the fourth episode, Nathan opens an acting school to train performers for future rehearsals, although by this point, the number of rehearsals he’s engaged in has dwindled to one involving Angela, a 44-year-old woman who’s trying to decide whether she’s ready to have a child. The actors sit gamely through Nathan’s introductory lecture on “The Fielder Method,” which primarily consists of choosing an unwitting subject in the real world and learning how to mimic their behavior. (When one student asks how this connects to Stella Adler’s approach to performing action, Nathan draws a blank: “What’s her deal?”) Uncertain that his lessons are truly connecting with his students, Nathan stages a recreation of that initial class, with himself in the role of a student named Thomas, and a new actor playing the class’s instructor, “Nathan.” But despite the brain-breaking lengths to which he takes his simulation—at one point, it involves hiring a pair of actors to play Thomas’ roommates, and a different pair to play fake roommates to Nathan’s fake Thomas—he’s still confused by the actors’ process. He admits, “They have a way of channeling other people’s emotions that I don’t fully understand.” By this point in the series, we know it’s not the channeling that’s the issue. It’s the emotions.

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The most acutely uncomfortable moment in the series so far comes at the end of this episode, when Nathan becomes convinced that the three weeks he’s spent in Los Angeles honing the Fielder Method—nine years in rehearsal time—has irrevocably damaged his relationship with his now-teenage son. With Angela’s approval, he arranges for his sullen teen to fatally overdose on drugs so that they can turn back the clock and replace him with a six-year-old, and when Nathan discovers Adam’s “corpse,” he drops to his knees and starts to wail. The overt display of anguish from a man we’ve never seen crack so much as a smile slices through the layers of irony and metafiction with alarming speed. Fielder isn’t much of a conventional actor, but you can feel him trying to feel something, grasping for a moment of authenticity in a sea of fakeness. That he doesn’t stand a chance of success only makes it more poignant.

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From the beginning, Nathan approaches his interactions with others as a performance. In order to facilitate an emotional bond with Kor—which he needs to convince Kor to take part in the show—Nathan brings up the subject of Kor’s divorce, and when Kor opens up, Nathan responds with one of the few personal details we ever learn about him: Nathan is divorced, too. But he’s also staged the conversation in a public pool and arranged for an elderly swimmer to wade in and interrupt the moment Nathan starts to reveal himself, so that he can appear willing to share without actually having to do so. Even so, he worries, “I wasn’t sure if my portrayal of vulnerability was convincing.”

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After an abortive attempt to find a partner to play-act child-rearing with Angela, Nathan steps into the rehearsal himself as a platonic co-parent. But no one seems to believe in the process as much as he does, even though he’s also the only person who knows precisely how fake it is. Thanks to a combination of child-labor laws and cockamamie conceptualism, the actors playing the babies have to be swapped every four hours, and it’s decided that they’ll also be aged up three years every week. Angela plays along gamely, but Nathan fully commits, installing digital mirrors that make his face look like it’s aging along with their child and having his crew plant store-bought vegetables in the garden to mimic the change of seasons. At the end of the third episode, Nathan spies a UPC sticker still attached to a bell pepper in the kitchen, and he surreptitiously flips it so it’s sticker-side down. But who is he fooling? Surely Angela has noticed that the carrots she’s pulling out of her patch are bound with rubber bands, and the zucchini aren’t connected to stalks. Who is this rehearsal even for?

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The closest The Rehearsal comes to outright mockery is in its depiction of Angela’s born-again Christianity, which can be summed up by her belief that the devil controls Google. As a Canadian Jew, Nathan seems nonplussed by both her faith and the fervor with which she expresses it, but he brings the conflict to a head in the fifth episode, “Apocalypto,” by suggesting that their son, Adam, should be raised in Judaism as well as Christianity. Nathan is far from observant, admitting that he hasn’t been to synagogue in years “because it’s so boring,” but he starts sneaking Adam—or at least, one of the actors playing Adam—off for religious instruction while pretending that he’s at swimming lessons. Nathan’s sudden attachment to his culture feels a little abrupt (it’s one of the moments when you can most firmly feel Fielder’s guiding hand behind the camera), but it resonates with a thought from the end of the third episode, just before he turns over the pepper: “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.” Nathan doesn’t appear to believe in god, but for him, the belief in the rehearsals does what faith does for so many: It allows him to situate himself in the world, and sift meaning from the chaos of existence.

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The rehearsals themselves apparently parallel ideas from both Kabbalistic study and Jewish midrash, although it’s doubtful that Nathan the character is aware of this. (As for Fielder the writer-director, whom the Forward likens to “a Kabbalistically imagined Jewish God”—who can say?) But they’re rooted in a simple secular precept: Life comes down to a handful of decisive moments, and how you fare in those crucial moments determines whether you will succeed or fail. Nathan tells the actors he’s teaching the Fielder Method that the slightest misstep on their part “could ruin someone’s life,” a line repeated by the actor he hires to play himself. But it finds its most poignant expression in the second episode, “Scion,” when Nathan takes on the role of co-parenting Adam. “It’s scary to imagine raising a child,” he reflects, “when you always know that a single misstep on your part could ruin their entire life.”

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Every parent shares this fear: that each choice—breast- or bottle-fed; whether to comfort a squalling baby or let them cry it out; getting them into the “right” daycare, pre-K, grammar school—carries with it the possibility of irrevocable harm. And every parent learns that they will, time and again, make the wrong choice, and that the consequences are rarely as dire as they feared. Human experience isn’t a series of Boolean gates where every yes/no question alters the direction of your life for good. Change is not that easy, but neither is failure always so definite.

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This is a lesson that The Rehearsal seems to be teaching Nathan, bit by bit. It’s present from the climax of the first episode, when Kor completely blows his carefully rehearsed confession and seems ready to let the matter drop until Tricia asks him to finish his thought. Instead of the verbal “violence” he feared, Kor is met with the sympathies of a longtime friend, one who doesn’t seem to care how awkwardly he fumbled his way into the conversation. Nathan seems baffled by the lengthy heart-to-heart that follows, a result he admits never showed up in any of his simulations. He’s so invested in the idea of narrowing life to a series of predictable, and therefore manageable, possibilities that he hasn’t grasped a basic truth: No matter how much you practice, you will never be ready. What matters most is the ability to accept imperfection, in yourself as well as in others. You will make terrible mistakes, and suffer the consequences: marriages end, people die, things that should have been said never are. But if mistakes were permanent, Angela would still be “standing on the corner drinking 40’s” and not taking part in Nathan’s bizarre experiment. The most important lesson the religious instructor teaches Nathan has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s when he asks if she wants to rehearse her confrontation with Angela and she tells him she prefers to “shoot from the hip.”

Even as someone who came pretty close to nailing the Game of Thrones finale, I’ve never been less certain of what a TV series was going to do in its final episode than I am with The Rehearsal. Will Nathan fulfill the prophesy of the series’ key art and start over from the beginning with a new, more compliant Angela? Will we find out that this whole thing has been a rehearsal for something else? I can’t begin to imagine. But I’m learning to be OK with that.

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