Film files: ‘The Rehearsal’ is Nathan Fielder’s dizzying magnum opus

An illustration of Nathan Fielder with a halo sitting on a couch with a baby.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

In the second episode of comedian Nathan Fielder’s new show “The Rehearsal,” Robbin Stone, a horny, sign-seeing love interest to Angela, an aromatherapy-obsessed Christian, explains the multiple vehicular accidents he’s gotten into. On top of crashing his Scion tC at 100 mph, he also had a brush with death during an ATV accident. 

“I even saw the white light,” he explains. “I was ascending, going to heaven. And God pulled me out.” 

But in the world of “The Rehearsal,” the real God is Nathan Fielder himself — armed with the HBO budget to build exact replicas of entire buildings and make it snow in the middle of summer.

This bizarre docu-reality show follows Fielder as he coaches people through big-budget simulations of uncomfortable real-life situations, hiring actors and building elaborate sets to make these “rehearsals” as realistic as possible. 

In the pilot episode, Fielder meets Kor, a middle-aged high school teacher who’s been lying to his trivia team for years about having a master’s degree. After Kor decides to confess his long-held secret to one of his trivia friends, Fielder hires a lookalike to play the part of the friend, gets the lookalike to secretly interview the real friend to learn her mannerisms, builds an exact replica of the Brooklyn bar in which the confession is to take place and spends days practicing the conversation with Kor to help ensure that the real-life one isn’t a disaster. 

At one point, Kor remarks, “It’s like you’re Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory and I’m Charlie Bucket.”

“Wasn’t he a bad guy?… I’m the bad guy in the story?” Fielder asks.

“Well, but he’s a dream-maker.”

But, as Fielder comes to learn, being a dream-maker is never quite so simple.

Throughout the show, he is forced to confront the murky ethics of his own project, including the possibility that he’s exploiting the vulnerabilities of real people for laughs. However, in moments when it seems that Fielder’s intention is to have the audience laugh at someone for acting strange, it never feels particularly mean-spirited. Any exploitation involved in “The Rehearsal” is the result of its relatively unfiltered look at the lives of real people. While the show doesn’t hold back in documenting the negative, it never contrives what isn’t there.

There’s not a lot that separates Fielder’s show from other reality shows that place people who are drawn to being on television into heightened situations and then provoke real emotions out of them. “The Rehearsal” is just doing so in a way that very overtly raises questions about its own ethics. 

Throughout the show, we are forced to question whether its events are real or whether they only exist to us within the simulated world masterminded by the real-life Nathan Fielder, a man entirely separate from the naive and timid character he plays on the show. 

This divide between the character of Nathan Fielder and the real Nathan Fielder producing the show is often exposed when real-Fielder orchestrates and acts out scenarios where his character must confront his own awareness of the show’s questionable ethics. But his character never actually learns from these realizations. Each time, instead of changing his behavior, he doubles down on what caused the problem in the first place.

In episode four, Fielder opens an acting school in Los Angeles where he can train actors with the hopes of actually hiring them for “The Rehearsal.” He asks his actors to follow a stranger, so they can learn how to become them, even arranging for them to work at their primary’s job. However, one actor named Thomas has obvious reservations.

Instead of trying to have an open and honest conversation with Thomas to ease his mind, Fielder turns Thomas into his primary, restaging the first acting class and hiring an actor to play himself. He then decides he must go so far as to live in Thomas’s home. He tells the real Thomas to live in a replica of his primary’s apartment with two actors hired to play his roommates. The whole time, Thomas is apparently oblivious to Fielder’s plans to move into his apartment.

This is played multiple times throughout the series as a joke. The real-life Nathan obviously understands the lesson his character is failing to learn. Otherwise, real-life Nathan wouldn’t be able to use his character failing to learn that lesson as a joke. 

But as the line between the real and the manipulated blurs more and more, “The Rehearsal” no longer feels like a reality show. It feels like a show about a guy making a reality show and trying to feel empathy for others in the process.

While Nathan’s own efforts are in vain — intentionally so — there still seem to be many genuine, unscripted moments in the show where people like Kor or Thomas uncover real emotions and we truly feel for them. 

It’s in these moments that the line between reality and artifice no longer seems to matter, as the people on the show — and those watching it — are still experiencing something real.  

Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and is trying (and failing) to learn how to play the guitar. 

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