Can you ever be authentic if you’re crippled by your own self-awareness?
While I ask myself this very question on any given day, I’m jotting it down today because it’s what I was left wondering when I finished the fourth episode of Nathan Fielder’s genre-defying series The Rehearsal. Ostensibly, the nonfiction show is pitched as following the Nathan For You creator/star as he helps “regular folks” rehearse pivotal moments in their life (difficult conversations with siblings or trivia pals, the challenges of parenthood, say). Only, with every subsequent episode, that provocative premise (who wouldn’t want coaching and a full-blown production crew helping you test out any and every kind of turn a complicated discussion with a loved one could take?) has turned into something much more ambitious. But also, something much more insidious.
To be fair, this was there all along. After he introduced us to Kor, whom Fielder eventually helped, the show revealed that the way its host had so nailed that first interaction with this willing participant was because he’d hired an actor and beta-tested that back-and-forth to exhaustion. Namely, while the rehearsals in the show would be centered on people eager to be helped by the kind of production budget HBO can afford, it was already clear the very conceit of The Rehearsal was, in no small part, a result of how Fielder himself wishes he could live out his life. As someone who often spends sleepless nights reliving idiotic things I’ve said while out and about with friends (“Oh god, I really should’ve said X instead…. What they must think of me now!”), I understand Fielder’s impetus—and his desire to extend such a comfort blanket of an experience to his various guests.
But practicing for real life is just not, well, practical. After all, any simulation will necessarily be a lesser copy. By definition, it can never be the real thing. It can only approximate it. And Fielder seems intent on making his rehearsals as authentic as possible—which requires a degree of fabulation that necessarily pushes him into ethically murky territory. This is someone who sets up a fake acting school in Los Angeles where he encourages would-be actors to stalk people in order to better impersonate them and who, without a glint of irony (I think? Or is he that good of an actor?) tells the class that this is the kind of gig where, if you get it wrong, you could ruin someone’s life.
That entire scene and the questions it raises are also on Fielder’s mind. It’s why he then sets up not a rehearsal but a recreation of that first class, so he can better understand his students’ many concerns. Here he is yet again inserting himself into this life-as-acting exercise he’s been concocting throughout. Only this time, he’s not just a mere participant. He’s become an actor. Thomas, in fact. I’ll admit the sight of Fielder in a wig(!) made me laugh. But not as loud as when, later in the episode, Fielder and Thomas share the following exchange, after the aspiring actor confesses to Fielder why he’s struggling with his assignment:
“I don’t like lying to people,” Thomas says.
And then, in the most deadpan way possible, Fielder responds with the following: “No, neither do I.”
It’s the kind of moment that feels so absurd that I couldn’t help but double over. But in that laughter I recognized the bait-and-switch The Rehearsal keeps pulling on us. For I do believe Fielder when he says he doesn’t like to lie. Only, he knows it’s a necessary part of his job. His mission, even.
But that entire experiment, wherein he tried to become Thomas to better understand himself and his own class, struck me as taking this entire premise too far. It’s getting harder and harder to keep track of this nesting doll of a proposition, but one thing continues to be clear: This is an exploration of Nathan Fielder’s own method of madness. This makes the choice of reshaping Adam’s own growing up/personality when he gets back to Eagle Creek all that easier to understand. That has stopped being an exercise in Angela’s service. It will now remain squarely in the service of Fielder’s own interests. I’m hesitant to try to attach words like “selfishness” and “solipsism” to these choices, but when you orchestrate a fake opiate overdose to better capture how a teenage kid would react if a father figure would be gone for years on end because that’s the story as you’ve experienced it, you have to wonder where it’s all headed.
Which is all to say: I can’t be the only one horrified by this episode, right? And terrified also by the way in which Fielder must keenly be aware of how terrifying he’s coming across. Which brings me back to that question about self-awareness, which keeps nagging at me. There’s such an investment in authenticity in all of these “rehearsals,” yet Fielder cannot ever get out of his head. He’s reaching for emotional veracity (in himself as he demands of his actors and thus of his participants), but it all seems like it’s forever out of reach for him. Is this why he’s so much more comfortable in these “rehearsals” when he’s in them himself? Are we building up to a point where the falsities around him stop being crutches and risk becoming the real thing? Is he intentionally trying to drive us insane by reminding us how performative our everyday lives are? Guess we’ll find out next week.
- “You did cocaine?!” may be the line of the episode. Hands down.
- I did love the visual flourish at the end of the episode (the slide transition) and love that Fielder kept the teenage actor playing Adam coming out of the slide (“Is that it?”) and breaking whatever version of verisimilitude that fantasy transformation could have created. We’re in Brechtian territory here, after all.
- As much as I am fascinated by the thematic concerns of The Rehearsal, I am equally as intrigued by its own logistics. I was left wondering, for instance, how Fielder & Co. arrived at using Eagle Creek, Oregon as their home base. What was it about this community that made it such a good fit for these various rehearsals? Fielder notes Eagle Creek had a lot to offer only to show us, in a John Wilson-esque flourish, images of two signs: a makeshift one that reads “We have eggs now” (above another that reads “BROWN EGGS”) and a more professional looking one advertising “Pole Buildings.” Similarly—and especially during that truly WTF OD moment—I kept wondering how in control Fielder is. We’ve seen how hands on he is so…did he know the overdose was going to happen? (Did Angela?) And if he did, what purpose did it serve?
- I am still caught up on the fact that the denim jacket Thomas is wearing on his first day at Nathan’s workshop features, in its back, an image of a fluffy cat with the words “Eat Me” emblazoned over it. I don’t know what to do with this information other than note how prominently it’s framed. It’s hard to miss—but also hard to make sense of. In a fictional show, I’d point out how it may be telling us something about Thomas but, honestly, I don’t know what I’d say about such a costuming choice other than it helps further baffle us about who Thomas is as an individual. (Also, again, I want a full-blown interview with the many actors who participated in the show—either as themselves during these classes or as performers in the actual rehearsals because…I have questions!)
- An aside: I agree with Fielder, actors can be very intimidating. Also, Barry crossover when?
- I am asking you all, once again, to watch Synecdoche, New York. And I will stop suggesting you do when I stop writing “How Kaufman-esque!” in my notes after every single episode.