For most of the inaugural season of HBO’s The Rehearsal, the one thing I was sure of was that I was sure of nothing.
Nathan Fielder’s brilliantly confounding follow-up to his Comedy Central cult hit Nathan For You inspired reams of thinkpieces pondering both his alleged genius and his supposed sadism. But I preferred to withhold judgment until the season finale. Pinning this show down, frankly, seemed to take the fascination out of it. What made The Rehearsal compulsively watchable (and re-watchable) for me was that I didn’t know how to feel about it.
But now that season one is complete (and season two is confirmed), I feel confident in the following declarations:
- The Rehearsal is the most cleverly constructed show currently airing on American television and it’s not particularly close.
- It is a comedy, but just barely a comedy.
- It is a masterpiece. (Probably).
- A show like this needed to exist in order to demonstrate that shows like this should not exist.
- The Fielder Method is a genuinely innovative style of acting that could potentially become influential on future generations of performers as entertainment blurring the line between reality and fiction becomes the norm. (It might already be the norm.)
- I will never let my kids become kid actors.
- People who answer ads on Craigslist are the most interesting Americans.
- I don’t care how “real” this show actually is.
- The second season of will be Nathan Fielder rehearsing being a viewer of the first season and through trial and error gradually coming up with the perfect and correct take on The Rehearsal.
- How you feel about The Rehearsal hinges on whether it makes you think about the people on screen or about yourself.
I want to focus on that last point because I really think this is the key to whether you loved The Rehearsal or if it made your skin crawl. As someone who loved it, I’ve read critiques of the show that I find to be mostly correct and also miss the point. You can watch this show and laugh at the “freaks” or “weirdos” or however else you want to describe them, or be bothered by the idea that other people are laughing at them. But I don’t think that is Fielder’s aim. This show is not a window, but a mirror. The delusional people he’s showing us are meant to spotlight our own delusions. As The Rehearsal unfolded, I couldn’t believe how much I related to those characters, including Fielder himself.
This is easiest to identify with the incredible first episode, in which we meet Brooklyn teacher and bar trivia obsessive Kor Skeet, who is troubled by a minor lie he told about having a master’s degree to some friends years earlier. One pal in particular, Skeet believes, could become “violently” angry if he comes clean. The hook of the episode is Fielder’s recognition of a common form of social anxiety — the suspicion that the people we care about will disown us if they find out who we “really” are. On that count, the resolution of the episode is actually reassuring: After an exhaustive rehearsal process set inside a meticulously re-created version of a local bar, the friend isn’t remotely bothered by the transgression, and quickly forgives him between bites of pizza and swipes on her phone.
As the remainder of the season settled into the ongoing storyline about conservative Christian would-be mother Angela and Fielder’s seemingly sincere attempts to simulate parenthood, this premiere episode appeared to be a stand-alone outlier. But right away Fielder established what I think is the central theme of The Rehearsal: We are all the protagonists of our own lives, and we see other people almost entirely in terms of how they feel about us. But those other people aren’t actually thinking about you, because they’re also thinking about themselves as protagonists in their own lives. Even when we are together, we are alone.
By the fourth episode — the one in which we see Nathan teaching The Fielder Method to a class of L.A.-based actors — Fielder is dealing with this theme explicitly. In the episode, he becomes alarmed by whether his students are having a good experience in the class, and if they like him or not. Fielder decides to re-create his class with another group of actors, only this time he takes on the role of one of his students, Thomas, and casts a different actor to play himself. Then he further escalates the premise by moving into Thomas’ apartment and working the same job that Thomas works as part of his Fielder Method assignment.
By literally living Thomas’ life — sleeping in his bed, eating his cereal, fighting with his nunchucks — and also engaging with a stand-in for himself, Fielder would appear to be breaking out of his own solipsism. But the underlying point is to understand how Thomas “really” feels about Fielder. Though this ultimately, of course, remains a mystery. An HBO-sized budget might allow you to vividly replicate someone’s exterior life, but the interior existence of a stranger is frustratingly elusive. All that’s left is projection.
“It’s easy to assume that others think the worst of you,” Fielder says in the voiceover narration at the episode’s close. “But when you assume what others think maybe all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.” Saying this is not the same as believing it, however. Sure enough, in the penultimate episode, Nathan and Angela have a falling out over who is the protagonist of The Rehearsal. When Angela realizes it will never be her, she leaves. Now any pretense that this show is about anyone other than Fielder has been set aside.
For a show that managed to somehow up the ante with each episode, it was still a shock to see The Rehearsal turn even more uncomfortable in the finale. Remy, one of the child actors who played Fielder’s fictional son Adam, becomes overly attached due to his own missing father in real life. This understandably makes Fielder feel guilty. Because this is The Rehearsal, he tries to understand how this trauma occurred and whether it could have been prevented by setting up two simulations — one with actors playing Remy, and one with Fielder playing Remy’s mother.
It’s possible to watch this episode and wonder if Remy has been scarred for life by working on this show. But as a parent, I sided with Remy’s mother, who feels bad for her son but knows that he will get over it. Remy’s problem is that his real dad is not present, not the fake dad he will likely forget about in a week or two. Once again, the melodrama (and comedy) of the episode hinges on Fielder’s feelings, and the insane lengths he’s willing to go to in order to assuage them. He can’t conceive of a reality in which he will not matter at all to this kid as much as he fears/desires.
Fans and detractors of The Rehearsal have often described Fielder as “autistic,” which is inappropriate for various reasons. But above everything, I don’t think his self-centeredness is at all unusual. Watching this show made me think about how, in “normal” social situations, it’s common for me to have conversations in which nobody asks a question about the other person. It’s all people either talking about themselves or waiting to talk about themselves. This has been exacerbated by social media, but it’s also deeply ingrained in human nature. We are wired to talk at each other, rather than to each other. The lesson of The Rehearsal is that our deeply rooted fears about being seen and judged are mostly unfounded. Nobody cares about you as much as you care about yourself. This is deeply sad, and also a profound relief.