Nathan Fielder’s brand of comedy is not for everyone. From his breakout Comedy Central show Nathan For You to HBO’s tiny gem How To With John Wilson (which he executive-produces), Fielder has perfected a very specific style of awkward, deadpan cringe comedy based on unscripted encounters with unsuspecting real people. Fans of his comedy (including me) have been patiently waiting to see what he’ll do next after Nathan For You ended five years ago, and now we have our answer. Fielder’s new HBO show The Rehearsal — premiering this Friday at 11/10c; I’ve seen five of the six episodes — is bigger, weirder and more thought-provoking than anything he’s done before. In fact, I wouldn’t even classify it as a “comedy” at times, but it’s never less than fascinating.
As the series begins, Fielder explains that he’s working through his own issues with human interaction (“I’ve been told my personality makes people uncomfortable”), so he posts a Craigslist ad looking for people who’ve been avoiding a big moment or confrontation in their lives. He offers to help them rehearse it until they get it exactly right, hiring actors to stand in for their friends and loved ones, building exact replicas of familiar locations and trying dialogue over and over again to hit upon the perfect formula, with Fielder running through each possible scenario on his laptop. It’s kind of like The Truman Show mixed with that scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray keeps fine-tuning his approach to Andie MacDowell to create the perfect first date.
Fielder assists a new participant in each episode, renting a gigantic soundstage to replicate the exact environments where their big life events will take place. For a teacher who wants to confess a lie to his bar trivia buddies, Fielder constructs a perfect clone of the New York City bar where he plays trivia, down to the torn seat cushions on the chairs. For a woman who wants to try out motherhood before taking the plunge, he hires an army of child actors from infants to teenagers to play her kid, with the child aging up three years per week. (What’s more, Fielder has rehearsed his own interactions with the participants beforehand with yet another set of actors to make sure everything goes smoothly on his end.) But life is unpredictable, and Fielder’s own life starts to overlap with the rehearsals in strange ways as his simulated reality loops back on itself and gets uncomfortably real.
The heavy-duty scenario planning that Fielder undertakes to stage these rehearsals is both highly absurd and genuinely jaw-dropping. He dabbled in longer-form stunts on Nathan For You like in Season 4’s super-sized “Finding Frances,” but this is on a completely different level. If nothing else, The Rehearsal is an absolute triumph of set design and logistics. (I couldn’t help but wonder: How much of HBO’s money did he spend on all of this?) It’s admirably audacious, especially for a weird alt-comedy that wouldn’t normally get a budget this size. And along the way, Fielder’s grand social experiment hits upon some profound insights about human nature and why we do the things we do (even if we’ve practiced it a thousand times).
This is all probably not making it sound very funny — but it is! It’s less “ha ha” funny, though, and more “this is a very unusual situation, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing” funny. Some moments are so unbearably awkward that I had to look away. But Fielder mines plenty of laughs from the unpredictable turns his experiments take and the truly eccentric characters he finds. (You know, the type of people who would actually answer a Craigslist ad looking to rehearse a crucial life event.) There were times I wanted The Rehearsal to be more conventionally structured or even more conventionally funny; it gets weirdly poignant at times — or poignantly weird, I’m not sure which — as it walks a fine line between inspired and demented. (One participant’s comparison of Fielder to Willy Wonka isn’t all that far off.) But I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing like it on television before… and I’m glad HBO forked over all that cash to make it happen.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal reimagines his deadpan alt-comedy style on a grand scale, and the results are fascinating.