When Reality Isn’t: On Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal”

THERE’S AN ANECDOTE Matt Damon tells about David Fincher on the set of 2014’s Gone Girl. The actor, who was visiting his friend Ben Affleck, arrived during the filming of a scene where Affleck and Rosamund Pike’s characters share a date at a bookstore. Everything seems to be going well, but the director isn’t happy. “Who walks like that?” he keeps asking. He’s not referring to Affleck or Pike, but to an extra who is supposed to cross the frame while the camera’s — and the audience’s — focus is on the stars. “Who the fuck walks like that?

Fincher is not alone among (mostly male, mostly white) directors who have earned reputations as detail-obsessed perfectionists, and who have seen these reputations bolster their credibility as auteurs. And so sometimes, a production with a $60 million budget pauses to let an anonymous background actor find the right gait — or for an assistant director to find a more suitable stand-in. The point of the story, as Damon tells it, is to marvel at Fincher’s fixation. But, the actor admits, the guy was walking kind of funny, like somebody who was too conscious of how a person should walk on camera.

The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder’s new, six-episode HBO show, stems from a seemingly simple premise: what if you could rehearse for life’s biggest moments? The Canadian comedian builds elaborate sets to replicate the actual spaces where the participants in his experiment live, work, or lie to others, in hopes that total immersion in the fiction will allow them to practice approaches to the real events free from the immediate consequences. In the pilot episode, a teacher and trivia fanatic plans to tell a friend that he never actually earned the master’s degree he frequently cites. Fielder commissions the construction of an accurate bar set, its trivia night replicated down to the orphaned, half-deflated balloons caught in the rafters and the cadence of cheap pizzas coming out of a brick oven.

But Fielder soon grows dissatisfied with his own concept. In order to successfully rehearse for life, you have to be able to replicate it. What does it mean to do that — and is it possible in an environment as hermetic as a film set? As if wanting to give Christopher Nolan a run for his money, in terms of the remarkably exacting production as well as the self-reflexively layered text it yields, Fielder raises the stakes of his game, both for his subjects and for himself, as he turns the camera in each direction. In doing so, he stumbles (or appears to stumble) into a Bergmanesque meditation on reality, authenticity, and the blind spots created by an auteur’s tunnel vision.

The show begins in earnest with its second episode, when we meet Angela, a 44-year-old born-again Christian who wants to “rehearse” raising a child. Fielder has his crew build a dream home to her exact specifications: a sprawling house with garden and space to farm far out in the country. A series of child actors (enough to satisfy child labor laws and the rapid, simulated aging) is brought in to portray Angela’s child — “Adam,” naturally — from birth to age 18, a life collapsed into a handful of weeks. Angela does not imagine that she would be a single mother, so Fielder tries to create for her a two-parent home; when Robbin, who shares some religious values ​​with Angela but whose true claim to fame is totaling a Scion TC as he drove it at “100 miles per hour,” leaves shortly after moving in, Fielder, himself mulling parenthood, takes over.

But Fielder’s participation exposes the existential problem of the series. The issue is first voiced in the show’s third episode, when he realizes —while purporting to help a man at odds with his brother over their grandfather’s will — that he has no way of preparing his subjects, or himself, for the emotions they might feel in the moments they’re rehearsing for. Even the most meticulous reenactment (or preenactment, as it were) is sterile and safe compared to the real thing. His solution is “the Fielder Method,” a class he offers to hopeful actors in Los Angeles. Fielder trains them on how to fully inhabit another person’s life by assigning the actors to follow a real person around the city. When this, too, returns performances that are insufficiently “real,” Fielder arranges for his students to work the same jobs as their subjects. Simultaneously to this, he is beginning to investigate the way he comes off to people by impersonating one of his students — in a recreation of his Fielder Method classes, taught by a fake version of himself. The time spent in the fake session is not enough; Fielder attempts to live as “his” student, brokering an apartment swap that flummoxes all parties involved, as well as the viewer.

When Fielder arrives back at the house with Angela, it’s been simulated that a number of years have passed; “Adam” is now a teenager. They have a cordial introduction — “father” and “son” — which unnerves Fielder quite a bit. Seemingly motivated by his experiences leading an acting school and trying to inhabit his own student, he feels constrained by the phoniness of his own setup. And like any other control freak director, he tinkers, asking this teen Adam to actually behave like a kid who grew up without his father — rather than, it goes unsaid, acting like one. Fielder pushes the young man playing Adam to berate him and blow him off as Fielder tries, meekly but sincerely, to work back into his son’s good graces. Things end in tragedy: Adam “overdos” on drugs and “runs away.” Satisfied with that sequence of events, Fielder then rolls back the clock on his experiment, enlisting a new toddler to play Adam in a version of the process for which he vows to be more present.

In a macro sense, the series is a commentary on a lot of things: the inherent phoniness of reality television as well as the faults and constrictions of acting as representation of real life. Fielder admits that his urging a young actor to evoke a damaged teenager is motivated by his own desire to feel something during the interaction. But as his quest for something “real” requires more and more intervention, the process becomes more surreal — and alienating, particularly for Angela. (The show’s production budget, like the efficacy of its staff, is on display at every turn: staff members are shown deftly switching out child actors per union rules and dusting Angela’s home with fake snow; the scale and exactitude of its recreated spaces is staggering ; the actors Fielder uses to rehearse confrontations are genuinely compelling.)

In The Rehearsal‘s fifth episode, Fielder is faced with twin crises: Angela’s refusal, within the world of the parenting exercise, to introduce her faux child to Fielder’s Judaism, and footage that shows Angela has mostly checked out of the show’s rules whenever Fielder is out of the house. Fielder rehearses for his confrontation with Angela using one of his Fielder Method graduates, who promptly deconstructs the entire show’s premise — and maybe Fielder’s whole onscreen schtick — questioning how anyone can seriously take a concept where there’s no clarity about itsness versus its serious comedic utility. “Angela” then asks if Fielder wants to truly “feel something,” and when he says that he does, she points out how pathetic that is, and that he “never will.” It’s an excruciating moment that plays first as comedy, then pushes through to true pathos. This feeling is sprinkled throughout the series — that its willingness to cut close to the bone makes it one of the most moving and hilarious programs of the year while unavoidably calling into question the justifications for its very existence.

The Rehearsal‘s most obvious antecedent is Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2004), a film about a theater director who uses a massive grant to create a stage version of a city that, in the director’s push for more and more functional naturalism, becomes its own metropolis that the actors begin to really populate. The lines meant to be prodded and challenged for an audience’s benefit are instead blurred for the person nominally in charge. Much like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s obsessive director character, Fielder fixates on verisimilitude until he is exerting so much control that his creation could not be more unreal. In this way, The Rehearsal‘s failures are even more profound than what it “achieves.” Fielder and Kaufman are similar in that their attempts to break life down into controllable, knowable components are really attempts to combat their own neuroses and understand what a life is supposed to be — and whether art can capture one as it is. But like the philosophers before them, each cleared hurdle of imitation merely gives way to more questions.

Likely by design, the show eventually becomes a rehearsal for Fielder, one that forces him to relate to others and stage a more unselfish life. The way Paul Newman was a natural movie star, Fielder is naturally funny, one of those people who can create a viral meme simply by looking like himself. His awkwardness and lack of charisma has been a punchline since his days on the Canadian comedy institution This Hour Has 22 Minutes, as much a part of the joke as the circumstances — painstaking interviews, ill-conceived business pivots — into which he throws his subjects. He induces people to do ridiculous things for fear of offending him or breaking implied social contracts. This near-sociopathic comfort in the uncomfortable makes Fielder the ideal collector of the exploitation and embarrassment that drives reality television.

In The Rehearsal‘s finale, Fielder comes to terms with the human consequences of his process when Remy, one of the young child actors who played Adam, begins struggling to differentiate between Fielder’s role as his pretend father and the real dad he wishes he had. At points it’s difficult to watch; it’s also the funniest episode of the show, tracking Fielder as he runs through scenario after scenario to figure out what mistakes he made with Remy. Because this is a sweet kid from a broken home, we feel for him, blaming Fielder the way he blames himself for the confusion he created. But Remy’s mom comes off mostly relaxed about the whole thing. Her faith in her child gives her certainty that things will sort themselves out — she does not feel the need to micromanage every step of his emotional development, nor has she deluded herself into believing this would be possible.

Fielder likes to play the traveling huckster salesman, and there is certainly a market for giving people the chance to predict big life moments or challenging conversations in the same way that Nathan for You‘s preposterous business advice format has plenty of stone-faced analogues whose grips on reality are only slightly firmer. Both variations on his basic character attempt to stamp the mystery out of life, leaving only math problems. There’s certainly a scientific desire to see if one could turn around a failing gas station or say something difficult to a sibling, but the worldview that animates it is essentially misanthropic in its lack of imagination about human behavior. By the end of The RehearsalFielder hasn’t really helped anyone prepare for conflict or confront themselves — but he has gotten a little closer, through his show’s ostensible failure to wrestle control from the unpredictable, to feeling something real.

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Israel Daramola is a culture writer in New York City. He has written for Pitchfork, GQ, The Ringer, Vulture, and Rolling Stoneamong other publications.

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