There’s always been a prevailing belief of sorts that comedy and horror go hand-in-hand, and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to the sub-genre of cringe humour. Place a camera into a setting or scenario that involves unlimited embarrassments, either scripted or unscripted, and the results can be enthralling yet difficult to watch.
It’s the unscripted part of the equation that the works of Nathan Fielder falls into. Like the works of Sasha Baron Cohen or Chris Morris, Fielder’s break-out series Nathan For You appears to gain much of its comedic mileage from the fact that only Fielder is acting and that everyone around him is real, seemingly unaware of any joke being perpetrated.
When it comes to his follow-up The Rehearsal, the lines of comedy, drama, reality, fiction and even life itself become increasingly blurred in ways that no other television series has seemingly ever attempted.
While Nathan For You was a grandiose work of satire, The Rehearsal is something else entirely. In an era of peak TV, Fielder might have just done something that is seemingly impossible in this day and age; created a true original.
Fielder himself is one of the small screen’s most intriguing talents. His brand of comedy makes for a companion piece of sorts with the works of Sasha Baron Cohen or the non-scripted sequences of Chris Morris’ daring The Day Today follow-up Brass Eye.
There is something inherently funny on a nightmarish level whenever a comedian takes a fictional character or fake persona and lets its loose on an unsuspecting public who are unaware of the joke. Nathan For You feels like it could be one of a piece with Borat or Bruno, an outsider character (Fielder plays up his Canadian roots in most of his work) who deals with an America that is unprepared for him in any way.
Nathan For You was very much a takedown of reality television, specifically the sub-genre that the likes of Undercover Boss or Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares fall into. Switch on any of the digital off-shoots of Channel 4 and chances are one or both of those shows are on the air right now, where the hosts help out a business and change things for the better, with the case of Undercover Boss being that the owner of the business itself walks out of the experience a better person.
Nathan For You replicates this type of series so perfectly, from the title sequence, the initial sit down with the business owners, and the impact of Fielder’s decisions played out in a way that blurs the line between scripted reality television and documentary, except in this case things take a turn towards the comically cringey.
It’s a very funny series, but there is an undercurrent of discomfort to be had from the central ‘arc’ of the series that sees Fielder trying to connect unsuccessfully on an emotional level with those around him, the real-life business owners he is helping eventually finding their interactions with Fielder becoming increasingly awkward as a result. It’s a component of his previous series that Fielder runs with even more during The Rehearsal.
On paper, Fielder’s latest (airing on HBO in the US and Sky Comedy in the UK) is almost hard to describe but at its basic level, it involves Fielder as himself again helping members of the public who have reached out to him through an online ad in order to prepare for a conversation that they are anxious about. Fielder’s way of helping them involves recreating the environment this conversation will take place in to the absolute littlest detail on a soundstage and the employment of actors to help the subject of each episode.
Fielder’s ability to recreate the likes of bars, houses and even fast food restaurants that he watches from either closed camera footage, or by directing the action in person with a MacBook strapped to his shoulders planning out for every eventuality almost portrays him as a figure more akin to Ed Harris’ villain from The Truman Show.
It is literally unlike anything on television before and the blurring of reality and fiction becomes ever more dense and complex as it continues. It takes the awkwardness of his persona that he honed in Nathan For You into even more dazzlingly complex places, the series either becoming (depending on your point of view) a meta takedown of the human condition and television itself or just an awkwardly played documentary.
It asks fundamentally difficult questions of the audience and the experience of watching each episode runs from either feeling like you’ve experienced the most profoundly produced television you’ve ever seen, or an existential nightmare that proves that life is all too futile and fleeting.
You might even question if it really ought to be broadcast on a Sky channel with the word ‘comedy’ in it.
The bulk of the series is taken up with an arc that centres on Fielder involving himself in an ongoing rehearsal involving Angela who wants to prepare for life as a mother. Fielder ‘casts’ himself as a father to their child and basically lives with them, the child being rotated through various differing actors of ages, mostly because US labor laws only allow child actors to be on a set for a limited number of hours.
The third episode devotes itself largely to this strand of the series and ends up delivering one of the most profoundly beautiful observations on the nature of time and watching one’s family grow up way too fast. It is, quite possibly, amongst the best pieces of filmmaking in any medium in 2022 and a contender for the best episode of any television series so far this year.
It’s a story arc that builds to a finale of such incredible power but it leaves the viewer’s stomach in knots due to how uncomfortable it is and how blurred the lines have become between reality and pretend. One of the child actors playing Fielder and Angela’s ‘son’ becomes so upset at the end that any questions you have about what is real and what isn’t with this show seem to have been concretely answered, or at least jettisoned in favour of just letting the cameras roll during what might have been otherwise behind the scenes footage.
These ethical questions are at the heart of a lot of Fielder’s comedy. The Rehearsal and Nathan For You are undeniable masterpieces of television comedy, but even though these ethical questions have come up in many reviews of his latest series, they are still there in the viewer’s mind during his previous breakthrough work. For all the fun there is to be had with his cringe-worthy interactions and the confused looks that come from the small-time business owners he is helping, one does wonder about the impact that being at the centre of such absurdist humour would have on the actual businesses involved in the long run.
One of the most memorable episodes of his reality television satire involves Sue, a real estate agent who is convinced to rebrand herself as The Ghost Realtor, selling houses that she assures customers are not haunted. Eventually, a possible haunted house sees her reach out to an exorcist and be convinced to take part in an exorcism of her own for back pain, a moment that goes from hilarious to deeply uncomfortable in a split second as she reacts profoundly to being effectively yelled at by a priest for five minutes and which leaves her looking like she is, in Fielder’s words, dead.
It’s these lines which he clearly enjoys straddling, and which reach a new zenith with his latest offering. There has possibly been nothing like it on television before, and there may never be again. In an era of so much television, Fielder has positioned himself as a true original in a genre and field that is crowded. He has delivered something new and genuinely unique, but one which leaves you with so many more questions than it does answers in a way that the genre has perhaps never previously ever tried to wrestle with.
The Rehearsal is undeniably one of the finest things to have aired this year and will most likely make a lot of ‘best of’ lists come December. A second season has been commissioned by HBO and one is left intrigued at what existentialist exploration Fielder will cook up next. As discomforting a series it can be at times, I think it’s safe to say it will be eagerly anticipated.
The Rehearsal is available on Sky Boxsets and HBO Max