You don’t have to have a blinking arrow pointing at cameras and a neon sign announcing your intention to put people on television and use their supposed unsuspecting gullibility to tip them off to the idea that something may be awry. The Internet (specifically YouTube) and reality television have embedded an awareness within our brains. Because of this, people either seem entirely too game or entirely too quick to flee a situation, making “real” moments and responses seem less so while “reality” TV continues to move away from the interesting character explorations of the early Real World to a boring wasteland for those who want to be famous. This is the challenge that Nathan Fielder faces with Nathan For You, as the show enters its third season on the outskirts of the reality/documentary realm and becomes a less well-kept secret. But in tonight’s season premiere (10PM ET, Comedy Central), the laughs come more from Fielder’s setups than others’ reactions to them.
If you’re not familiar, Nathan For You stars Fielder as a business expert who’s made it his mission to save small businesses across the land as a part of a Kitchen Nightmares-like business improvement show with far less yelling and British outrage. In tonight’s episode, the small business in question is Speers TV, a small electronics shop run by Allen Harikian. His enemy? Best Buy, the big box electronics retailer and the possessor of a price-match guarantee that’s making it impossible for Harikian to try and undersell the much bigger competition.
As is the case with all of Fielder’s missions, the comedian comes off as incredibly earnest when he tries to help people out of a jam. That’s especially impressive when he’s shepherding an alligator into a back room as part of a gauntlet destined only to infuriate customers. Pissing people off is only part of the plan, though. The rest of Fielder’s strategy involves playing within the bounds of Best Buy’s price-match policy to give Harikian a small edge in terms of profit margins. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go according to plan and Fielder is left to push the set-up to its extremes. Legal action gets considered and an innocent retail clerk gets entrapped. All for the sake of what, exactly?
In an interview with GQ, Fielder said that he would get “more introspective” and be more “self-aware” this season. That’s immediately apparent in the premiere and should give the show a certain amount of weight. Though a smirk may start to crawl across certain participants’ faces as Fielder’s masterful deadpan is betrayed by the wildness of his suggestions, and as people eventually start to sense that they’re nestled in the heart of a comedy show, that skill, imagination and weight should still be there to keep this show upright. In essence, with Nathan For You, Fielder has constructed a show that is immune to the rising awareness of the real people he’s trying to play, because unlike prank shows that rely on human stupidity to make themselves look smart, Nathan For You is smart enough all on its own.