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Practice Does Not Make Perfect

We can’t actually anticipate all of life’s twists and turns, let alone influence them. But Nathan Fielder is committed to trying in ‘The Rehearsal,’ even when life involves something as stubbornly unpredictable as other human beings.

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the series finale of Nathan for You, a feature-length saga titled “Finding Frances,” Nathan Fielder runs a rehearsal. The Canadian comic signs on to help a Bill Gates impersonator named Bill Heath reconnect with a long-lost love. But the closer they get to, well, finding Frances, the more reservations Fielder has about springing his subject on an unsuspecting near stranger. So he and his team rent out a theater, hire an actress to play Frances, and have Bill practice starting a rather sensitive conversation. In the end, Bill declines to meet with the real Frances after an awkward phone call, though he does ask the actress who plays her out on a date.

At the time, “Finding Frances” felt like a fitting conclusion, distilling Nathan for You’s longest-running themes into a single tour de force: the blurred line between reality and performance; the profound loneliness of the Nathan Fielder character, a figure with an unclear relationship to the show’s actual creator and star; above all, the cloudy ethics of enlisting real people in Fielder’s stunts. In “Finding Frances,” the stakes were even higher than the success of a small business, Nathan for You’s typical client base. Fielder was assisting Bill with an issue of profound emotional intimacy, amplifying the already extreme discomfort of watching the deadpan master at work.

Five years later, Fielder is back with a project that casts “Finding Frances” in a new light: not as an end to one magnum opus, but a transition to another. The Rehearsal, a six-episode series, is the second product of an overall deal between Fielder and HBO, but the first in which Fielder appears in front of the camera. (Fielder is an executive producer on How to With John Wilson, the quirky, digressive docuseries that gives a softer edge to gonzo gimmickry.) The show is, in essence, a supersized version of the Bill-Frances dry run. In an effort to reduce the uncertainty of everyday life, Fielder has volunteers “rehearse” fraught interactions, from confessing a secret to confronting a sibling. Inevitably, Fielder finds himself drawn into the experiment as more than a neutral observer.

The Rehearsal offers no introduction to our master of ceremonies—no sound bite to quickly explain the setup à la the opening credits of Nathan for You, which boast that Fielder “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades.” It’s acknowledged that the Nathan Fielder of The Rehearsal is the same man who spent four years assisting the entrepreneurs of Greater Los Angeles, though he only references in passing the show that acquainted us with his neuroses. Our familiarity with Fielder and his MO is largely assumed.

Given how The Rehearsal builds on its predecessor, some advance knowledge certainly helps. (It also serves as a fair warning. Despite the name, Nathan for You wasn’t for everyone, and The Rehearsal is unlikely to make converts of the cringe-averse.) The Rehearsal maintains the Herculean commitment that’s led Fielder to don elaborate prosthetics or taste-test poo-flavored fro-yo. It also escalates the entire operation, starting with a premium cable budget that allows Fielder and his crew to assemble an exact replica of a subject’s apartment, or simulate a snowy winter when it’s well above freezing. The structure of the series, too, reflects Fielder’s new home base. Nathan for You’s episodes were a tight 22 minutes and largely self-contained; The Rehearsal is more sprawling and serialized, beginning with a pilot that runs to three-quarters of an hour. The story—crafted by Fielder with cowriters Carrie Kemper and Eric Notarnicola, a former editor on Nathan for You—builds from there, shifting gradually from individual rehearsals to the man who runs them.

Perhaps as a result, The Rehearsal takes on a different tone than Fielder’s previous exploits. When I described the show to a friend, she asked me whether The Rehearsal at least had enough humor to take the edge off, as Nathan for You did. My honest answer was no. Of course The Rehearsal is frequently funny. You’ll laugh at how easily Fielder’s marks go along with his harebrained schemes, or how far Fielder will go to make a seemingly trivial detail true to life. (One rehearsal tries to simulate the passage of time, so Fielder installs enhanced mirrors that age his reflection by a good 10 years.) But The Rehearsal also inverts Fielder’s previous ratio of comedy to tragedy. Nathan for You used existential melancholy as an ironic grace note, making the gap between Fielder’s deep feelings and petty plots a joke in and of itself. Here, it’s the jokes that are the accent.

It’s quickly clear that The Rehearsal is an elaborate metaphor for social anxiety. We can’t actually anticipate all of life’s twists and turns, let alone influence them. But Fielder is committed to trying, even when life involves something as stubbornly unpredictable as other human beings. “I’m not good at meeting people for the first time,” Fielder explains in the opening voice-over. “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that.” And work he does, though his efforts prove less likely to mitigate unease—especially the viewer’s—than ratchet it up considerably.

The Rehearsal provides plenty of fuel for the debates that have always raged around Fielder’s work, which often involves some measure of deception. (In a recent profile for New York magazine, reporter Lila Shapiro contacted former guests on Nathan for You. Some had less-than-fond memories of playing an unwitting part in someone else’s comedy sketch.) In several scenes, rehearsal actors are asked to surveil their inspiration under false pretenses; when one correctly observes they’re supposed to “stalk” their “target,” Fielder gives an eager nod. But the more Fielder assumes center stage, the more the events of The Rehearsal feel inflicted on himself, rather than innocent bystanders.

It’s this quality that makes “Finding Frances” especially prophetic. Fielder’s desperate need to be seen, understood, and accepted is the series-long arc of Nathan for You, but on an episode-by-episode basis, it’s largely confined to the background. With its extra run time, “Finding Frances” gives Fielder his own stand-alone story. As Bill searches for Frances, Fielder retains the services of a professional escort, purchasing the intimacy he can’t come by organically. The exchange echoes Bill’s own pursuit, but it also makes clear why Fielder is so invested in the love life of this relative stranger. He sees himself in Bill’s isolation—his struggle to understand why connection eludes him.

Fielder frames The Rehearsal as a service he’s offering to others. In truth, we see, he’s really imposing his worldview on them: the futile hope that we can shield ourselves from vulnerability, if only we prepare for enough possibilities. “We don’t get to decide what happens in life,” Fielder says. “But we do get to decide if we rehearse for it.” Some of Fielder’s clients may bow out before their rehearsal plays out in full, but Fielder keeps cloaking himself in layers of filmed unreality until his life resembles The Truman Show if its writer-director were also the lead.

In a sense, The Rehearsal pivots from the extent of Fielder’s alienation—and many of ours—to how and why it came to be. Fielder’s obsession with control isn’t the solution to his problems, The Rehearsal demonstrates, but rather the cause. Fielder doesn’t want to discuss his (real-life) divorce, so he pays an actor to create a distraction before he has to open up, cutting off a chance at a genuine connection. Fielder can’t stop overanalyzing a conversation, so he rehearses it on a loop, reliving his past instead of moving forward. Fielder can’t tolerate a true unknown, so he manipulates real life the way he would a rehearsal, crossing several boundaries in the process. The Rehearsal is supposed to equip Fielder for actual experiences. In practice, it keeps him from fully engaging with them. Anyone a little too in their own heads will recognize the cautionary tale.

Nathan for You was a sharp satire of American capitalism, from the crude parody of Dumb Starbucks to the sheer lengths some people will go for a gas station rebate. But Fielder has always been less political than peers like Sacha Baron Cohen, who make a point about society by subjecting it to their constructed characters. By discarding the professional angle and delving deep into the personal, The Rehearsal reads like an unfiltered expression of Fielder’s true interests. The more complete the illusion, the easier it is to be honest.