Television

The Challenge of Criticizing The Rehearsal

Did the brain-breaking season finale engender controversy, or engineer it?

Nathan Fielder sits at a desk behind the scenes, staring into a laptop, deep in thought, wearing a black outdoor jacket
Nathan (Nathan Fielder) in the finale of The Rehearsal. Screengrab from HBO Max

This past weekend, a nation of HBO viewers rediscovered the collective thrill of viewing a live television event as a mass audience. I am speaking, of course, of the season finale of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal. The six-episode docuseries, which wrapped up its first season Friday night, has an audience that is tiny by Game of Thrones standards but obsessive beyond belief, scouring each episode for clues as to which parts of the show are real and which invented and spinning their own variations on its trap-doors-inside-trap-doors approach to reality TV. In keeping with the premise, which involves Fielder constructing elaborate replicas of real-life situations so that he and others can rehearse them before they happen, the show’s thriving subreddit spawned a sub-subreddit called TheRehearsal1stDraft for practicing posts to the main forum.

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The series began as a multilayered riff on social anxiety, with Fielder helping a middle-aged teacher practice a difficult conversation with a friend. But it became a show about being a parent—or, more specifically, what people without children imagine parenting is like. Nathan’s core fear, reiterated in nearly every episode, is of making a crucial mistake that damages a life, whether it’s his or someone else’s, forever. And in the season’s sixth and final episode, “Pretend Daddy,” that fear seems to have been realized. After constructing a meticulous simulation of motherhood for a woman named Angela, Nathan has found himself raising their pretend child alone. “Adam” is actually a stable of interchangeable child actors, who according to the show are limited to working four hours at a time and aged up by three years every week, but for one 6-year-old named actor Remy, those boundaries don’t seem to hold. In the episode’s opening scene, the show pulls one of its magic-realist exchanges as 6-year-old Adam goes into the house to fetch root beer and a 9-year-old Adam emerges to help Nathan set up for his (fake) ninth birthday party. But as the 9-year-old Adam prepares to welcome the child actors playing his friends, Remy presses his nose up against the window from inside the house, unwilling to stop playing the part.

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For Nathan, the simulation of fatherhood is growing less and less satisfying. Thanks to alleged budget-cutting, the actors playing the parents of Adam’s friends aren’t allowed to speak, so he ends up singing “Happy Birthday” by himself as they silently mouth the words. (One especially game extra tries, without success, to mime “He’s gotten so tall!”) But for the young Adams, the rehearsals have become all too real. The Adam whom Nathan had schooled in Judaism has to be deprogrammed in front of his devout Christian mother, with Nathan deadpanning that Judaism “is just pretend … You get to go to heaven, but I have to go to hell.” For Remy, who we find out is being raised by a single mother, play-acting the father-son bond seems to have created a real one. On his last day on set, Remy refuses to change out of his wardrobe, and won’t be consoled by the reminder that the whole thing was only pretend. Later, Nathan visits Remy and his mother at home, and the child rebuffs his attempts to end the game. “I don’t want you to be ’athan. I want you to be daddy.”

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It’s a heartbreaking moment, and although The Rehearsal previously seemed to be at pains to make its protagonist look ethically suspect, for once it feels like things might actually be as bad as they seem. Even within the confines of his limited affect, Nathan looks shellshocked, unsure what he’s gotten into and, more critically, how to get out of it. Earlier in the episode, he stages a moment where 9-year-old Nathan is bullied by his classmates at Hebrew school, in hopes that he could “practice counseling my child through a complex emotional experience.” Now that crisis, or something close to it, is upon him, and he has no idea how to proceed. In every previous rehearsal, his main obstacle was getting his participants to believe in it enough. Now he’s faced with one who believes too much.

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Belief is an occupational hazard where The Rehearsal is concerned. Looking over reactions to “Pretend Daddy”—and, eventually, arguing it out with friends and colleagues—I was taken aback by people who seemed ready to take Remy’s dilemma at face value. Going into the episode, I’d more or less reconciled myself to the idea that nothing on the show was real in any unambiguous sense, or at the very least that there was no way of telling what was and what wasn’t. But Remy reopens that issue—or at least, the show uses him to do so. Whether or not it’s just because the immature Nathan makes a great playmate, there’s real tenderness in their relationship, especially when Nathan allows Remy to play the role of “Dr. Fart” and pretends to be a patient whose ills are magically cured by flatulence. It’s a reminder of how effortlessly inventive child play can be, and how much they love it when adults step into their world.

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It’s perfectly possible for actors Remy’s age or even younger to give convincing portraits of emotional distress: The main character in the 1996 Belgian movie Ponette is a 4-year-old dealing with the death of her mother. But even with adults, there’s no guarantee of emerging from an emotional performance unscathed. As Isaac Butler, who wrote about The Rehearsal’s “Fielder Method” episode, explains in his book on Method acting, some techniques essentially teach actors to re-experience their personal traumas in the name of emotional authenticity. In the 1928 silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, Renée Maria Falconetti gave what is commonly agreed to be one of the greatest performances in the history of film, and was apparently so wrecked by the experience that she never acted again. What distinguishes successful professional actors from amateurs isn’t just their ability to experience emotions and make them legible, but to find their way back.

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At heart, I don’t believe that a 6-year-old child acting four hours a day for a week would form a bond with a stranger so strong that severing it would be lastingly traumatic. But for the purposes of The Rehearsal, what matters is that Nathan does. When he goes back to the house with 9-year-old Adam, Nathan breaks character to check if his portrayal of a father might actually be too convincing. With the preternatural diffidence of a seasoned pro, the child responds, “I mean, you’re a great scene partner.” But that still leaves Remy. In a sequence that by this point has become the show’s stock in trade, Nathan re-enacts his own simulation, casting the actor playing 9-year-old Adam as Remy and replaying their interactions to see if he could have better prepared the 6-year-old for their eventual separation. When that doesn’t work, he substitutes a grown man in the part of Adam—seen, in one hilarious cutaway, puffing on a vape between takes—and then a child-sized doll. But he can’t find the problem from inside his own skin. So Nathan does what he did once before, when he was stuck figuring out what was wrong with his acting class: He rehearses the past as someone other than himself.

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Stepping into the role of Remy’s mother, Amber, is the kind of brain-breaking twist that The Rehearsal has made de rigueur, but this time, Nathan’s not just sounding the depths of his own mania. Rather than fixate on small details, he leaves himself mostly as-is, adopting Amber’s clothes and painting his nails but not changing his helmet-like hair, or even bothering to shave. Visiting Remy and Amber’s home for the first time, Nathan narrates his awe-struck response to the “level of detail” in their haphazard clutter, staring at a battery perched on the kitchen backsplash like it’s been carefully placed by some hyperattentive production designer. But as Amber, his concern isn’t with the verisimilitude of his self-presentation. It’s for Remy.

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Before Nathan takes on his final role as Amber, she reassures him that Remy will be fine, and when Nathan asks how she can be so convinced, she responds, “I didn’t convince myself. I’m just gonna make sure he’s OK.” By this point, Remy seems thoroughly healed, waving goodbye to “my TV friends” as Nathan walks out the door. But Nathan can’t rest easy. As Amber, he acts out moments we’ve never seen before, some from before the production even began: Amber taping Remy’s audition, her first meeting with “the director,” played by the faux Nathan from the “Fielder Method” episode. (As Nathan-as-Amber watches his shadow self play with faux Remy on a control-room monitor, one producer shoots him an aside: “He’s kind of a weird dude, huh?”) Because we’re seeing these interactions for the first time, there’s no telling what Nathan may have changed, although the concern he expresses for Remy’s wellbeing seems entirely in line with the real Amber’s behavior. But there is one moment of overlap and noteworthy departure. Reenacting Remy’s last day, Nathan-as-Amber explains how her son has grown close to him, and, as the real Nathan did the first time, his stand-in expresses concern for them both. But as Amber, Nathan sees something that the real Amber didn’t, or at least didn’t express. Looking into his own eyes, Nathan asks himself, “Are you OK?”

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If The Rehearsal has convinced us of one thing, it’s that Nathan is very much not OK—not the version of himself he plays onscreen, and for the show’s detractors, not the man behind the camera, either. He’s a manipulator who’s come to the end of his micromanagement rope, a prankster whose biggest mark is himself. But there’s one final trap door to be sprung. In a tearful conversation with her son, Nathan’s Amber apologizes for putting Remy in a situation where he may have been hurt. She explains that “that man”—that is, Nathan Fielder—“isn’t that different from you. He’s just figuring stuff out and messing up along the way.” Perhaps, she admits, she messed up too, because no amount of forethought or rehearsal can prevent us from making mistakes, even terrible ones. You can’t make things perfect and freeze them in time, but that’s OK, because, she concludes, “Life is better with surprises.”

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It’s almost too tidy a moral, especially for a series devoted to the idea that messiness will out. And it takes almost breaking the show to make it feel real. As Nathan-as-Amber talks to fake Adam, his eyes start to fill with what feel like alarmingly genuine tears. Things may be confusing, or things may be sad, but everything will be all right, “because I’m your dad.” The moment of poignant emotionalism is undercut by a flash of panic that Nathan the actor has just blown a perfect take. Even his scene partner is nonplussed: “Wait,” he whispers, “I thought you were my mom.” But Nathan decides to run with it, embracing the truth of that moment even it if means defying their pre-arranged scheme. “Let’s play,” he says, and as the two get up off the floor, The Rehearsal reveals its final surprise: Nathan’s butt crack, perfectly exposed to the camera before he bounds out of frame. Dr. Fart would approve.

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