Each episode of The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder’s experimental new HBO show, is an avalanche of awkward interactions, rapidly suffocating the audience in a wince-worthy pile of unpleasant, cautiously constructed social situations. It is physically hard to watch, but it’s also hard to stop. Since its premiere last month, the show has been submerged in a predictable swamp of discourse. Critics and casual watchers alike call the Nathan for You star exploitative and cruel, expressing disgust at the ethics of The Rehearsal and the morals of its viewers. And, as a fan of the show, I have to agree with these points: it’s not kind. But even with all the surprises this ethically dubious show throws at you, the most fascinating of all is how it draws unexpected parallels to game design.
In The Rehearsal, Fielder manipulates peoples’ realities through an army of esoterically trained actors, a seemingly endless HBO budget, and his own indecipherable intentions to create a delicious cocktail that is equal parts sweet and callous. This surreal show is an infinite-resource video game sandbox of sincerely uncomfortable comedy, and Fielder is its lead designer.
Since Nathan for You, Fielder has been wearing these petty labels with pride, further infusing intrusive, parodic schemes into his craft to make the audience cringe. He continues this study of awkward social arts with The Rehearsal, which materializes as the excessively lavish culmination of his research.
It takes form as a documentary-style comedy where Americans reach out for Nathan Fielder’s help to prepare for crucial life moments like deliberating the terms and conditions of an inarticulate Last Will, or confessing a secret that’s been festering for years. Like a teenager playing around with The Sims, Fielder creates spaces for people to practice life. Shortly into the show we find out his ultimate goal is to make this process a recognized practice called “The Fielder Method.”
Like his other work, The Rehearsal starts off very selfless; the inaugural episode has Fielder facilitating a trivia fanatic in his attempts to come clean about a lie. Fielder approaches this task by building a full-scale replica of the trivia fan’s go-to bar, hiring actors to further immerse his subject in the simulation, and mapping out every possible route the conversation could take with flow charts — as if he’s developing a Life is Strange game IRL. Even after some shady interference from Fielder — such as subconsciously injecting trivia answers into his subject’s mind to help him win — the confession goes well, the friends share a heartfelt conversation, bond even deeper, and it’s off to the next rehearsal.
If you just watch that first episode, you might assume that the next episodes would be equally as sweet, each one showcasing Fielder meaningfully supporting different peoples’ rehearsals in a way some would describe as “wholesome.” But you’d be oh, so, painfully wrong. After episode one, The Rehearsal‘s seams unravel from the sheer weight of Fielder’s promises; his vow of benevolent work quickly spirals into the absurd and selfish mentality of reality TV, comically revealing itself as a wolf in translucent sheep’s clothing. Fielder holds all the power: like a game producer, he has a uniform vision, and the participants within his worlds are NPCs fumbling in the dark, making do with what little agency they have. The intensely strange social experiment only grows more sinister with each episode, as does Fielder’s level of authority.
The next participant is Angela, an extremely Christian woman who wants to start a family and live off the land. Fielder and the crew get her set up with a house, baby (a hyper-aging infantry of infant actors), and garden by the countryside, as they attempt to find her a mock husband to complete this rehearsal’s vision. In this game Fielder also controls the environments, terraforming their lawn with massive crews that spawn faux snow to simulate Winter every day, like a counterfeit deity.
On the wingman adventure, Fielder fails to match Angela with the most interesting human alive and does the unthinkable: enters the simulation himself and embraces the role of husband and father. When he’s undertaking this new responsibility, The Rehearsal not-so-subtly puts the participants on the backburner and swiftly swaps its focus onto Fielder himself. It’s at this point that the show starts brazenly neglecting its responsibilities, and Fielder’s satirical thesis on reality-based filming finally emerges.
Fielder is now a contradiction; he’s simultaneously a player and the all-powerful developer of this game’s world. Whatever separation existed before has been entirely broken down. Currently, in the most recent episodes, he’s going dad mode — raising a child at the cottage full time and setting up water irrigation systems for his family harvest — but he still has to continue making the show and help more participants roleplay through their burdens of stress. During this time he trains aspiring actors in The Fielder Method, which involves lightly stalking and other creepy, borderline illegal activities. Thomas, one of the trainee actors, is particularly uneasy with this style of performance, and Fielder notices this. To better understand Thomas and soothe his worries, Nathan theatrically steals Thomas’ identity and recreates the entire training process with new actors playing the role of the training actors and himself. It’s never confusing, but these gags always read as Fielder doing way too much.
Out of a fear of conflict, Fielder also does a similar recreation after he notices Angela isn’t fully committed to her rehearsal in episode five. He casts one of his students to play her so he can gauge potential reactions when he brings up concerns with how Angela is raising their fake child. It’s evident he now wants his own ideal experience out of The Rehearsal, and will sacrifice the experiences of others for it; it’s like watching him rip the controller out of someone’s hands. This bizarre exchange between Nathan playing himself as a father and the actress who’s imitating his fake wife in their fabricated living room shatters the suspension of belief by ruthlessly cross-examining Fielder’s own self-satisfying involvement in his real-life video game.
“Why are you here?” The actress version of Angela asks this crucial question with her voice raised. “Are you really trying to help me? Or is my life the joke? Do you sit here with your friends at the end of the day laughing at me?”
Within these layers of actors and ruses, this scene is shockingly honest and catches you off guard. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch (although not entirely real): a character stands up to their untouchable creator, and sees him stand there doe-eyed and vulnerable as he questions his own motives. Fielder desperately responds to her by saying, “No, you’re not the joke. Not at all. No one’s the joke. The situations are funny, but interesting too.”
The scene ends with actress Angela asking, “Do you want to feel something real?” and stepping closer to Nathan. He shakily responds, “Yeah,” and she delivers the most gut-punching statement in the show: “That’s sad. You never will.”
All these parallels get incredibly messy, and here the audience witnesses the devolution of a well-meaning idea. The objective of this game isn’t to help people — it’s to generate entertaining situations at the expense of others. And most importantly, it’s to make sure that everyone likes Fielder, and that he’s having a good time working on his deranged acting technique in this warped pseudo-reality. In these scenarios Fielder is a developer that doesn’t want to stop playing his own game. These moments make you wonder, “How is Nathan Fielder even allowed to be doing all this?”
Online posters are latching onto this question and the cyclical conversations about Fielder’s problematic tendencies simply because The Rehearsal is on a much larger scale than his previous productions. He now has the budget to create massive and apathetic simulations for himself and others. Seeing Fielder unpredictably use his newfound power and sway is chilling at times; but I can’t subscribe to the suffocating Twitter ideology of “this thing is bad: nobody interact with it,” because it throws critical thinking out the window in favor of the hivemind. It’s way better to interrogate discomforting media head on. Yes, Fielder is a comedic scammer, but is he really that different from regular reality TV producers or privileged documentarians?
If you’ve watched reality TV, you know it’s almost always inherently exploitative. This fact is accepted by both its contestants and viewers. Whether it’s Survivor encouraging castaways to nonchalantly stab their fellow survivors in the back with sandy, makeshift knives; or Flavor of Love, the lawless Bachelor-esque dating show that objectifies women and promotes frivolous confrontations. Just like The Rehearsal, these shows all make a profit from creating artificial environments and provoking their contestants into uncomfortable situations on camera. Fielder isn’t the first to turn reality into a video game, and he definitely won’t be the last.
A little while ago I watched an old interview with comedian Jena Friedman, and it pops into my mind every week I tune into The Rehearsal. A lot of it is outdated, but during one moment she says, “When you do satire, you have to have conviction and be unapologetic if you’re really trying to say something.” It recently hit me that The Rehearsal is Fielder’s satirical game based on reality TV’s corrupt concepts, and the industry’s disquieting focus on mining profit off of people’s personal lives. Fielder plays this manipulation game to establish The Rehearsal as an effective parody, and he commits to the bit so hard that people are mad at him.
“The con is in the DNA of this country, which was founded on the idea that it is good, important, and even noble to see an opportunity to profit and take whatever you can,” Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror, her 2019 book of essays on internet culture and America. “The story is as old as the first Thanksgiving. Both the con man and his target want to take advantage of a situation; the difference between them is that the con man succeeds.”
It’s an open secret that Fielder is tricking people with comedy. He revels in that state of confusion and discomfort, living for that moment where someone blurts out their entire life story and he’s able to reply with a simple “Huh, okay.” The Rehearsal is a masquerade of a game that is specifically constructed for the amusement of Fielder and the viewers. This show is more cold-blooded in its indifference than outright cruel. It’s also okay that his work is muddled and doesn’t focus on being kind hearted. This overtly messy parody plays with its participants and demands the audience to question not only it, but its entire genre. The Rehearsal is fake as hell, but it’s also one of the realest shows I’ve ever seen and I can’t recommend it enough.