How The Rehearsal pushes the boundaries of reality TV | Reality show
One of the many confusing pleasures of The Rehearsal, comedian Nathan Fielder’s elaborate social experiment/reality series for HBO, is how often the series exposes its own delusions.
The central concept of the series is quite simple, if generally absurd: what if you could rehearse tense conversations or situations in advance? How much could you control if you had all the resources available to prepare? The show depicts both the tedious constructs of the facsimile — building a replica bar, hiring actors, testing out potential conversations — and the unnerving, sometimes sublime, suspension of disbelief.
With The Rehearsal and his previous show, Comedy Central’s cult hit Nathan For You, Fielder garnered laughs (or second-hand embarrassment, or horror) as the ultimate author of a little – wacky ideas taken way beyond the point of sense, with such deadpan absurdity you couldn’t tell silly from serious. Across four seasons, Nathan For You, in which Fielder dragged real small business owners into daringly inane schemes (staged a massive celebrity tip in a restaurant for free press, renaming a real estate agent as “100 % ghost-free”, “Dumb Starbucks”) offered a decent litmus test for its grimace tolerance. The typical Nathan For You viewing experience was a mix of awe at the grandiose stupidity of the scheme, amusement at the length Fielder would go to, and genuine concern for business.
Repetition takes Fielder’s engagement and viewer’s apprehension to new heights. It takes a knowingly false notion—that one can control emotions or life—and doubles it over and over until that notion feels like unhinged genius. There are the building blocks of reality television – the participants both exposed and kept at a distance, the assumption that everything is a quasi-real and quasi-scripted, clean montage. (Fielder is an executive producer of HBO’s superlative edition of How To With John Wilson, which turns mundane city life into glorious fantasy.) Watching The Rehearsal feels like reaching the outer limits of reality TV. – you’re not sure what to think there, skeptical to go further, and can’t stop looking.
In the first episode, Fielder helps a trivia lover practice revealing a multi-year-old substandard fib to a friend with photorealistic precision, including a working full-scale replica of the Brooklyn Alligator Lounge. Like all Fielder storylines, the second episode, which aired last Friday, ups the ante: Fielder unveils a two-month simulation for Angela, a 40-year-old Christian who has put off having children for test motherhood. We see the Truman Show-esque intricacy of Fielder’s set design – per Angela’s wishes, she lives on an Oregon farm with a garden and rehearses the adoption of her son “Adam” from a real agency, delivered by his real mother. (Fielder also has the Alligator Lounge replica transported to a warehouse in Oregon — much of the show’s entertainment is simply marveling at how much money it’s made from HBO.)
We also see, sometimes simultaneously, the mysterious scaffolding necessary to support this unbelief. Fielder, blurring the line between the TV producer persona and Nathan For You’s socially awkward and deadpan disposition, edits the adoption scene in real time, asking the real mother to elaborate on why she would be “unfit” to be relative. Big Brother-style cameras film Angela and a cast of child actors – all playing the role of Adam – in the house, transmitted to a control board at nearby production headquarters. A giant timer on the living room wall counts down four-hour shifts for underage actors, as required by law. Staff members stealthily turn off car seats when Angela isn’t looking, or crawl through a window to slip a crying motorized doll into the crib for the night shift. (It’s uncomfortable, bordering on disturbing, to see toddlers participating in a production they can’t understand, pretending that Angela is their mother; it’s also indistinguishable from child labor actor on any other show, nor arguably as heavy as, say, a child’s work Instagram account created by adults.)
For viewers, there’s little distinction between on and off stage, but it’s disconcerting, and never less than fascinating, how quickly you take The Rehearsal’s bizarre terms for granted. This is true even if the terms change before us according to Fielder’s exacting vision and spiraling ego, itself extracted and adapted for television. If, as Megan Garber argued in The Atlantic, the paranoid style of post-Survivor American reality TV has taught us to embrace the awe-inspiring, omniscient power of off-screen producers, The Rehearsal only heightens the visibility of machinations. The producer’s contortions are intrigue. When Fielder, who joins Angela’s simulation as a platonic co-parent, feels trapped by the rules he has set for his own project, he changes them.
The second episode of The Rehearsal, in which Fielder outlines his plan for Angela, renewed criticism of Fielder’s work as a manipulator or villain. It is fair to say that Angela’s devout faith is delusional, her participation in this project delusional; a potential sim partner for her has since said he takes issue with her portrayal on the show, in which he smokes weed, drives and focuses on spiritual numbers. But to dismiss the episode as the manipulation feels like a misreading of The Rehearsal, which constantly pushes its own claims and makes Fielder’s unfettered social anxiety the butt of the joke. Of course, this is manipulation – discomfort with a person’s portrayal, their perceived justice or injustice, is a fundamental tenet and landmine for making television real people appear more or less like them- same.
All reality shows contain a dance between choreography and observable chaos, between controlled variables and the power of editing, for a product that assumes the position of accurate summary, or at least better curation. No one, not even the camp creations of Selling Sunset, or the contestants of Survivor, or the staff of Below Deck, or the castaways of Love Island, has control over their editing. We are all high performers all the time, without having the final say on how it is perceived; reality participants do so to a high degree, with a semi-public record.
The ultimate television victim, if there is one, of this concept is Fielder himself. Over the course of the season, he becomes trapped by the limitations and shortcomings of his own experience, which keep slipping out of his grip, especially as he becomes a fake co-parent juggling work and life – in d ‘other words, custody of the children in the series and doing the Show. Angela naturally has her own vision of the project and acts accordingly. A separate participant ghosts the production without explanation, though you can infer that it’s tied to the emotions of a deception which I think runs an ethical line. (Repetition includes his earlier footage.) In later episodes, Fielder’s attempts to control perceptual variables devolve into a solipsistic, meta-addictive Russian doll of imitations.
Another’s heart is a dark forest, but Fielder seems determined to try to map it anyway. At its core, The Rehearsal is deeply curious about why that is – why we act the way we do, how irrationally we behave, how far we’ll go to avoid vulnerability, how much we’ll watch others try. To really see people, their neuroses, their inconsistencies and their vanities, is messy. Knowing that it is being filmed for public consumption is disconcerting. For this to be meticulously edited and run through with an HBO budget carte blanche? This is good television, a reality show where extreme schemes achieve something real.