The Pitch: Comedy has long mined the rich vein of desire running within most average citizens for fame — or at least some kind of recognition. That yen for the spotlight is what allowed ’60s duo Coyle and Sharpe and modern day bellower Billy Eichner to turn “man on the street” interviews into improvised gold and fed the creation of far too many prank shows.
It’s also a craving that Nathan Fielder has spent the last decade twisting to absurdist ends, both on his acclaimed Comedy Central series Nathan For You and in his behind-the-scenes work on shows like How To with John Wilson and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? In each one, everyday people willingly put themselves under the eye of a TV camera, often revealing too much of themselves in the process. The results are either damning, heartwarming, or simply ridiculous.
The brilliance of Nathan For You was how Fielder served as a valence in each episode, using his dry presence and out-of-the-box ideas to affect the businesses and people he was meant to help. In Season 1, for example, he attempted to both get new customers for a struggling pizzeria and get the owner to include him in her will. Fielder’s presence only got larger as the series went on, as in the fantastic fourth season installment where he went to insane lengths to create a wild story he could use as an anecdote for his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Fielder looms just as large in his incredible new series The Rehearsal. As with Nathan For You, the supposed goal of the show is to help real people prepare for difficult conversations or big life changes by putting them through a practice session with actors posing as loved ones, friends, and bystanders. But as the first season wears on, Fielder, playing a needy and insecure version of himself, becomes as much a part of the rehearsals as the folks he is supposedly assisting, and uses these interactions to reflect on his existential woes. Be prepared for many shots of Fielder staring off into the distance with a look of pained contemplation on his face.
Is There Something You’re Avoiding? While those moments provide the beating heart of The Rehearsal, the comedy often comes via the outsized personalities of the clients Fielder works with, and the outrageous lengths he goes to in hopes of achieving their goals.
The opening episode centers on a geeky New Yorker who wishes to fess up to a prickly member of his bar trivia team that he doesn’t have an advanced degree. Simple enough, yes? In Fielder’s hands, it becomes a Herculean effort involving a meticulous reconstruction of the bar where the confession is to take place, stocks it with extras, and has his client go through the evening multiple times in order to be prepared for any possible scenario.
When he sees that his client is losing focus on the task at hand when he struggles with the fake bar trivia, Fielder finds out what questions will be asked on the real night and plants the answers in his client’s brain in increasingly preposterous ways. Fielder even goes so far as having his team surreptitiously make a 3-D map of his client’s apartment to prepare himself for their first interview.
It’s at that point that it becomes clear how much power a TV camera can have on someone’s psyche. Sneakily recreating a person’s home down to the art on the walls and the books on the shelves would be cause for alarm, if not fury. Fielder’s client seems almost impressed.
Parenting, Fielder-Style: Being on TV is likely what inspired Angela, a 44-year-old living in Oregon, to participate in the show’s most elaborate and ludicrous rehearsal. To help her decide whether or not to have children, Fielder concocts a plan that will allow Angela to simulate raising a son from birth to his 18th birthday over the course of just two months by using child actors. Each week, this kid — dubbed Adam — ages three years.
Adding to the chaos is Oregon’s labor laws which state that people under 18 only be allowed to work for four hours. Which means Fielder and his team have to swap out Adams throughout the day. As they try to do it without disrupting the flow of a so-called normal day, it leads to hilarious moments like a staffer rushing up to substitute one Adam in a car seat with another while Angela is busy putting groceries in the car.
The plight of Angela and her motherhood rehearsal takes up the bulk of The Rehearsal’s first season, even as Fielder spins off to deal with other clients and endeavors like hosting a class for potential rehearsal actors that devolves into Synecdoche, New York-like postmodernism.
As brilliantly funny as all those side quests are, they can’t compare to the levels of meta hilarity that Fielder and his team (including writers Carrie Kemper and Eric Notarnicola, both Nathan For You alums) build into Angela’s rehearsal — almost all of which is impossible to talk about without spoilers. It helps that the star of this particular element of the show is a truly peculiar and self-serving born-again Christian. Fielder’s ability to maintain his composure and poker face as Angela doles out conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism is one of The Rehearsal’s many marvels.
The Verdict: HBO’s comedy department isn’t praised enough for the chances it has been taking of late. With blue chip series like Last Week Tonight and Curb Your Enthusiasm keeping the lights on, the network has also fostered idiosyncratic series like Painting With John, Random Acts of Flyness, and now The Rehearsal. A show like this, which takes the best elements of Nathan For You and scales them up considerably, wouldn’t be possible without the financial support of a big network.
The laughs land as hard as they do in each episode of The Rehearsal precisely because its creators and crew are able to go big, whether that’s surrounding Angela’s home with fake snow or moving the New York bar across the country and rebuilding it in an Oregon warehouse so Fielder has a place to unwind.
There aren’t many shows, especially in the comedy world, taking the chances that The Rehearsal does. Nor are they lucky enough to be led by someone like Fielder, a comic visionary who has, once again, turned a parody of reality TV into a brilliant dissection of human nature.
Where To Watch: The Rehearsal airs on HBO starting Friday, July 15th. Each episode will also be available on HBO Max.