We are three episodes into Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal and it’s a testament to this slippery nonfiction series that I’m both worried and and comforted by how much Fielder seems to be leaning into the controlled chaos he’s concocted with his outlandish premise. Looking back, episode one—where Fielder helped a Brooklyn man rehearse a hard conversation with a trivia pal—feels almost quaint compared to where we are today. Once a removed director/puppeteer of sorts, Fielder has since involved himself in one of his rehearsals: He’s now playing Dad to a series of kids, helping Angela figure out whether she’s cut out for that homesteader mom life. I had originally assumed we’d just keep following his stint at Angela’s country house where chickens need to be tended, gardens need to be irrigated, and kids need to figure out why mommy doesn’t want to celebrate Halloween. (It’s a time when Satanists perform sacrifices. Only, don’t try to Google it, as the search engine suppresses such information, being controlled by the Devil himself, obviously.) Instead, it seems Fielder will continue to stage rehearsals for other folks as he juggles his duties as Dad and man of the house.
In addition to increasing his daily workload, inserting himself in Angela’s rehearsal has one bonus: Fielder now has firsthand experience in how these exercises can and do affect his participants. It’s one thing to treat these rehearsals as exactly that, moments when folks rehearse lines and arguments. It’s another to prepare someone for the emotional beats said conversations will elicit. He arrives at this epiphany when he realizes he’s running through the motions of being a dad but can never quite connect to what that feels. He’s constantly seeing the strings being pulled, after all, and struggles to lose himself in the fantasy he knows is so necessary to make such a rehearsal work. “Feelings are hard to engineer,” he muses toward the end of the episode. “There’s only so much you can do to deceive yourself.”
If I find myself surprised at how skillfully Fielder’s series would turn out to be a meditation on theories of performance (check the title, Manuel!), it’s only because its premise so obviously courted a kind of hands-on self-help therapy that I worried would be the key concern in every episode. Except, as much as Fielder does want to help the likes of Patrick, who needs to sit down his brother to demand his rightful share of their grandfather’s inheritance, the writer/director/producer/make-believe-Dad-to-Adam is clearly more fascinated by the meta questions these exercises bring up: What is the line between reality and performance? Can we truly practice our way out of difficult situations? Would we even want to?
And, of course, at every beat, Fielder keeps pushing us into murkier ethical territory the more he manipulates his “guests.” (Is that an accurate way of describing folks like Patrick and Angela?) Orchestrating a fake real-life bonding experience with an actor hired to play a grandpa who’s then pronounced dead—all for the sake of triggering the feelings Patrick would need to get through to his brother—is a fascinating moment of emotional manipulation. Or, meta-manipulation since this was a finely tuned rehearsal where everyone knew what was up except Patrick himself. We’re past role playing as prep. This was improv as real life, a kind of immersive (and coercive) take on method training where Fielder decided the only way to nudge Patrick to the core emotional place he needed to arrive at would be by actually tapping into those feelings in the context of an experience he did live through.
Just as I wondered with Kor in episode one, I am curious what, if anything, Patrick makes of this now that the episode has aired. Consent forms no doubt were signed and legally we wouldn’t be watching his story play out were all of that not taken care of. But his absence—and the lack of closure because of it—should force us to question who these highly produced rehearsals are for.
The more Fielder gets involved in Adam’s life (however we choose to think of an “Adam” that’s played by various kids and soon enough teenagers), the clearer it may become that this is all for his benefit more so than for, say, Angela’s. But his insertion is slowly making The Rehearsal feel like an ouroboros of a proposition. (“Nathan” is both director and protagonist, proctor and guinea pig.) What this might do to future attempts to help others is up in the air, but I have a feeling we’ll be going deeper and deeper into this metafictional rabbit hole before we emerge (hopefully unscathed?) on the other side.
- I’m not going to pretend like hearing a kid say “That’s Batman’s mommy” about Catwoman did not upset me. It was a nice reminder, though, that I don’t need a rehearsal to know I am definitely not cut out for responsible parenting.
- I was not expecting “digital mirrors” to become key props in a show like The Rehearsal but boy was that some Black Mirror stuff.
- Then again, I was also not prepared for such offhanded antisemitism but I was glad Fielder not only addressed it on the spot but also kept it in the episode. (At some point, we’ll have to talk about the kind of curation that’s taking place at the level of editing for we’re obviously getting a decidedly trimmed and narrativized look into these various “rehearsals.”)
- “Not everything is make-believe. Some things are real.” On the surface, this throwaway line by Angela feels like a précis of Fielder’s entire enterprise. He’s intent on finding the reality in make-believe. Or to make make-believe into a kind of reality. Except, as Fielder’s voice over toward the end of the episode suggests, such a line runs away from being a statement about performance or the power of the stage (the way, say, a great fictional moment can move you or can give you catharsis in a way a real-life conversation may not) and becomes instead a rallying cry for conspiracy theories that require believing in outlandish grand narratives that help folks structure their world accordingly. Like, say, opting to not celebrate Halloween because of its “Satanic origins” despite the Celtic roots such a holiday historically has. I asked last time how the show had cast its participants and here may be a clue: The people who’d be not only susceptible to but amenable to the kind of controlled reality Fielder and his crew concoct are those who may already believe the environment around them operates under similar circumstances. Namely: There are folks pulling the strings, swapping your kids, and maybe even planting store-bought green peppers in your garden. Only, you know, on a grander scale.