The Rehearsal has finished its run at HBO, and it has proven to be an excellent exploration of human insecurities through questionable and manipulative methods.
Despite its “realistic” approach to life, Reality TV is often more manufactured than it cares to admit. Or at least it feels that way. Yet, for one reason or another, we are still attracted to this kind of entertainment. We, as an audience, have a sort of morbid curiosity to see what other people’s lifestyles are like through our screens. As a result, we end up judging these people’s personal and professional decisions. But this begs the question: since we act like we know better than everybody else, what would we do in their positions? Or even better, have you ever thought about what you would do if you could go back in time and redo a tough situation you couldn’t get out of in the past? I ask these questions, and I bring reality TV into the mix, because Nathan Fielder’s (Nathan for You) The Rehearsal is a fascinating original series that is part documentary, part reality TV, and part experimental storytelling that seeks to answer some of our biggest human fears.
In HBO’s The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder goes around the nation to offer a select number of real life participants, or at least what Fielder makes us think are everyday people, the opportunity to rehearse some of life’s greatest challenges before going out into the world, since things don’t always work out as we expect them to. Why leave things up to faith, when you can practice as many times as you’d like to ensure things go your way? With this show, Fielder is determined to make us confront our insecurities, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, while also forcing people to do things they may not want to do.
It is quite difficult to describe what The Rehearsal really is, because the series eventually evolves into a completely different animal by the time we get to the end. Episode 1, “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” is probably the most straightforward entry of season 1. We meet a man named Kor, a Brooklyn-based teacher who is an aficionado of pub trivia, who wants to come clean to his best friend Tricia about a long-term lie he’s maintained. Kor has made his friends believe he has a master’s degree, when in fact he does not. This is where Fielder enters the picture, as he proposes to rehearse Kor’s confession to Tricia by building an exact replica of both his house and of the pub where Kor is thinking of having the meeting.
The thing that makes you uncomfortable right off the bat is the fact that Fielder attempts to help this man without his consent. When building the replicas to rehearse the confession, Fielder sends his crew disguised as members of a gas company to scan Kor’s house without his knowledge. Once the rehearsal actually begins, there is an anxiety inducing feeling in the room. Fielder hires professional actors to portray the friend in question and play out Kor’s confession. You could argue that rehearsing such a revelation about yourself is important because you don’t want to mess it up, but then you have to question if this is in any way manipulative. At what point does the rehearsal become a lie on top of a lie you’ve been hiding for years? Isn’t it unethical to make somebody you care about think you are speaking from the heart, when in reality you’ve been practicing every possible way things could have gone wrong? Because, at the end of the day, the rehearsal is not helping anybody but your own insecurities.
After an awkward game night, Kor’s issue is somewhat peacefully resolved, as Tricia proves he was overreacting by thinking their friendship would fall apart if he was honest about his past, when in fact she was very understanding about the subject matter. This brings to light a very interesting human flaw, not just of Kor’s but of people in general. We tend to overcomplicate things, no matter how big or small, thus making things worse for ourselves in the process. We are so scared of what we might say to upset people that sometimes we become dishonest with the world. Or worse, we manipulate and exploit others for our own ease of mind.
Let’s talk about a lot of people’s favorite participant to hate on the series: Angela. From episode 2, “Scion,” onward, The Rehearsal mainly focuses on a religious woman named Angela who wants to rehearse the experience of being a mother by raising a child (who isn’t hers) from the stage of being a newborn up to adulthood. For this, Fielder and his team hire multiple child actors for the job, and a home is built to make Angela’s experience more immersive by giving her the house of her dreams. All of this in a matter of weeks. Simple enough, although weird, right? You quickly realize, though, that this exact scenario is the very thing that changes the entire show. Judging from the first episode, you’re made to believe every episode will focus on a different person and experiment, but Nathan Fielder himself ends up being sucked into Angela’s rehearsal, as he, too, wants to know what it is to be a father. Here is where The Rehearsal really finds its footing and true identity, while confusing audiences in regards to what they are witnessing on screen.
Angela is your average devout Christian who loves God and lives her life according to what her religion allows her to do. Now, I am nobody to judge anybody’s personal beliefs: I don’t hold that kind of power, and I don’t want to say something that she or others might find offensive. That said, what I can point out is contradictory behavior. For somebody who claims to embrace positivity, love and light, Angela seems selfish, cold, and ungrateful for a large portion of her stay in The Rehearsal. I think if any of us were given the opportunity to plan out our lives for the next 20 years or so, we’d try to participate and be thankful for the great effort everybody around us are making to make our dreams a reality. Angela is getting the chance to imagine how it would be like if her Etsy business was successful, if she had a garden of her own to grow food in, and prepare for motherhood. Yet, she still seems unfazed by any of it. Perhaps this is due to her values not aligning with what the show or Nathan are trying to say. I do have to cut her some slack, though, because once Fielder joins her in this journey as the fake father of their fake son he sort of steals her spotlight.
Either by choice, as she argues she chose to leave, or by being forced by the uncomfortable situation with Nathan Fielder, Angela ends up exiting her own rehearsal after several disputes with Fielder and a Jewish tutor named Miriam that Nathan brings in to discuss the topics of religion and the crazy conspiracy theories of Angela’s. For every bit of hate that she’s been receiving by the audience — which I don’t approve of, despite her questionable behavior — I have to give Angela props for knowing when she’s overstayed her welcome. She doesn’t try to make a huge deal about it, she keeps things civil and avoids further drama. Unlike most, I don’t necessarily think Angela is evil, or a bad person. I just don’t believe she was the right fit for what Nathan Fielder was looking for, which as a result gave us pretty engaging television as the uneven dynamic between the two fake parents became estranged.
Now, I don’t want to pretend like Angela is the villain here, and Nathan Fiedler is the victim. He may not be the monster everyone makes him out to be, but he definitely carries just as much baggage as anyone else in the show. His questionable techniques become more apparent during episode 4, “The Fielder Method,” where he leaves Angela’s fake home to go to LA and train actors to embrace his method. Actors that he will later hire to help him in The Rehearsal.
The longer Fiedler’s approach to acting unravels, the creepier it gets, as he basically describes stalking as a useful way to get into other people’s psyche. Thomas McNavmara (NCIS) — an acting student of Nathan’s who’s taking his class — seems to be the only one to acknowledge how immoral Fielder’s method really is. He sees that it isn’t simply getting to know your “character” or getting into somebody else’s shoes, it is a dangerous mind game that asks way too much from these performers in order to do other people’s bidding. Despite the objections he might have, Thomas plays along, and I think this sums up The Rehearsal pretty nicely. It doesn’t matter how much we may disagree with the experiment: like Nathan and his cast and crew, we are somehow addicted to Fielder’s game. The show might make you cringe in your seat, but you can’t look away. It’s like watching a trainwreck. It’s off-putting, but you need to know how it ends.
I think it’s fitting that a grand part of the show’s season finale comes down to the ramifications of Nathan Fielder’s odd experiments. Remy Taylor, one of the child actors who plays Adam, Angela and Fielder’s pretend-son, immerses himself into the rehearsal more than he should have. He becomes too attached to Nathan, to the point where he can’t differentiate between the actual Nathan Fielder and the fake parental figure Fielder played inside The Rehearsal. There’s an extra layer of tragedy to this when we learn that Remy’s father abandoned him and his mother, with Fielder being the closest thing to a father-figure in his life. This entire mess that Nathan creates demonstrates how dangerous Fielder’s ambitions for this project really were. Yes, there are good intentions behind the idea of rehearsing some of life’s greatest curveballs, but is it really worth putting people’s mental health on the line for this? Is The Rehearsal actually helping people gain self-confidence? In some aspects it did, but in others it just made them worse.
People have argued for years that Nathan Fielder’s comedy is offensive on a devious level, and that he only recruits every-day individuals in order to use their imperfections for jokes. Take Kor as an example, whose rehearsal seems so insignificant in comparison to real life problems. And although I don’t necessarily agree with the statement that Fielder uses people for his own benefit, I can see why somebody might make such an accusation. More often than not, Fielder tries to find the flaws in humanity and then shows them to the world for them to judge, laugh, or sympathize with. This is no different from reality TV, though, which makes you wonder why we give a genre of television a pass, but condemn another that does the exact same thing but for different reasons.
One of the many reasons why reality TV is so popular and why there are so many shows in that genre is that they’re cheap to make, at least cheaper than most productions, and audiences consume them like fast food. In comparison, though perceived as mean spirited at times, The Rehearsal at the very least is attempting to be honest. To hold up a mirror and force viewers to rethink how they live their lives. Nathan Fielder, questionable methods and all, is trying to explore how we connect with one another and why we are so scared of messing up. He understands that we only get one shot at life, so, although the results might be unfavorable for some, his intentions are kind of genuine. He does want to help people, even if he ends up revealing their worst traits.
Ever since The Rehearsal season 1 came to its conclusion, audiences have wondered if the HBO series was even real to begin with. Rumors have spread about everyone involved in the show being an actor, which would destroy the authenticity of Nathan Fielder’s experiment. Questions such as these are fascinating to theorize with fans of the series, but whether The Rehearsal was real or not I don’t think it matters so much. What matters are the questions that the show raises. Are we so desperate for approval that we are willing to live a fake life in order to be considered a good human being? Why are we so insecure about our decisions? Why can’t we simply be ourselves and allow us to make mistakes so we could improve later on? I think Nathan Fielder understands these issues, and framing The Rehearsal through the lenses of a reality TV show is a smart way to demonstrate the absurdity of our behavior.
The Rehearsal is funny and ridiculous, but it is also uncomfortable and tense. I don’t care if Fielder’s human experiment was real or not. One way or another, it is a viewing experience I’ll never forget.