“The Rehearsal” is the second television project directed by and starring Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder. Since “Nathan For You,” Fielder’s first project and one of the funniest, most unique shows ever created, concluded in an epic fashion, anticipation has been high surrounding the project that would follow the cult phenomenon.
Sticking to a similar format as its predecessor, Fielder’s “The Rehearsal” takes the format of an awkward reality show supposedly meant to improve the lives of those involved. The show gives average people the opportunity to rehearse, in excruciating detail, a part of their life they have been worried about. These rehearsals are outlandish affairs, requiring meticulous sets, dozens of actors and weeks of acting and planning out every hypothetical version of each subject’s uniquely personal scenario. However, as the season progresses, the viewer realizes these rehearsals were little more than a sideshow, now pushed to the side in favor of Fielder’s larger focus. Experimenting with a hyperrealistic parenting simulation (consisting of over a dozen child actors, weeks of constantly changing complex set design and elaborate schemes all in an attempt to capture emotional realism) and all the consequences it brings.
For viewers unaware of his earlier work, Fielder’s own awkward persona has a great impact on the way his shows play out. Everything in this show is real, but Fielder puts on a face, what he calls a heightened version of his least desirable qualities. Fielder encapsulates the anti-game show host. Everything about him puts people just a little on edge. He isn’t creepy, he is just awkward—all the time. This persona, combined with “The Rehearsal’s” editing, brings something out of the people involved that no other show has captured as genuinely. People are unapologetically themselves. Everyone is weird and a little stupid a lot of the time. An actor, when lightly pushed, stalks someone. A man helps an older man complete a bowel movement on camera just because he is asked to. Multiple people are casually antisemitic while knowingly being filmed for a show on HBO. Fielder allows people to be themselves, for better or for worse, and the editors of the show ensure that every moment of it is at least a little uncomfortable.
“The Rehearsal” is a comedy first and foremost, but when it does periodically dive deeper into its subjects, especially those involved in the parenting scenario, its simulation of different human experiences inspires a huge array of emotions in its viewers. When a rehearsed scenario goes well in the real world, a person’s life was actually made better, and it is a beautiful thing to watch. When a young boy, acting as Fielder’s son, gets confused over whether or not Fielder is his dad, viewers see the effects another person’s actions had on a child’s life. The result is heart-wrenching. The viewer is forced to reckon in real-time with whether or not their entertainment is exploitative, and whether Fielder is ever actually acting in good faith. This incredibly funny and creative show manages in a six-episode arc to deconstruct the morality of reality television. And all through, presumably, unscripted interactions.
This is solely speculation about the show, but a constant point of discussion surrounding all of Fielder’s endeavors in reality television. “The Rehearsal” may be an elaborate prank on its viewers. Its production could range anywhere from more staged than it lets on to every person involved being a scripted actor. There is not any realistic way to find out. I like to believe otherwise. I like to believe that Fielder is simply gifted at revealing the everyday strangeness of people, but “The Rehearsal,” like all reality television, should be viewed critically. And some scenes are just… wild.
Season one of “The Rehearsal” is like nothing I have ever watched. While unwaveringly entertaining and funny, it showed a side of both humanity and the reality television industry that I have never before seen expressed in a 30-minute television show. The exploitative nature of “The Rehearsal” (intentional or not, it’s never clear) does add a coating of guilt to an otherwise glowing recommendation but so is the nature of any show profiting off of the experiences of others. “The Rehearsal” only differs from mainstream reality TV because it forces its audience to face the double-edged sword of its medium head-on. As viewers of the edited actions of supposedly willing participants, are we supporting an exploitative and sinister industry?