Is the character “Nathan Fielder” a sociopath? I ask this question in the kindest way possible; I’m certainly not the first to ask this. Obviously, the “Nathan Fielder” we see onscreen, in his breakout Comedy Central series Nathan for You and in his new HBO series The Rehearsal, is an act, exaggerating the comedian’s real-life personality for laughs. And there are aspects of this character that are likable: he’s always been trying to help and connect with people, however misguided, manipulative, or ethically dubious his methods are. But said methods are often misguided, manipulative, AND ethically dubious — and also really frickin’ funny.
Fielder’s work is often categorized as improvisational reality-comedy, similar to the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and John Wilson (sure enough, he produced Who Is America? and How To with John Wilson). What’s mind-blowing about The Rehearsal is how it makes it clear Fielder’s actions on-screen aren’t so much improvised as they are thoroughly scripted before he even meets the real people he’s messing with. HBO’s generous budget has gone to recreating houses and businesses down to the most minute detail for Fielder to rehearse in… and then for the real people involved to rehearse for their big social situations.
This set-up inevitably draws comparisons to Charlie Kaufman’s infamously confusing movie Synecdoche, New York, about a director making a play that simulates an entire city in real time. There are so many different levels of real world interactions, rehearsals for said interactions, rehearsals FOR rehearsals, and generally unnecessarily convoluted planning that much of the laughter comes from how much it will make your head spin.
The Rehearsal’s first episode, running slightly longer than the others at 45 minutes as opposed to 30, does a lot to explain and clarify the workings of this premise, and is the only one of the five that works to tell a self-contained story. You can consider this the tutorial level for the game ahead. The remaining four episodes, while each having their own distinctive twists and turns to work episodically, are more deeply interconnected in ways I can’t really discuss without spoilers.
The real paradox of The Rehearsal is in the tension between Nathan Fielder the show’s creator and “Nathan Fielder” its star. Nathan Fielder the creator obviously understands the workings of people’s emotions better than “Nathan Fielder” the character does, or else this whole perfectly-planned production couldn’t exist. But the issue isn’t merely that “Nathan Fielder” the character lacks understanding of emotions (a deficit in cognitive empathy does not make one a sociopath), but that he’s increasingly shown to almost completely lack emotions himself beyond a desire to manipulate others as suits him.
But even as it makes “Nathan Fielder” increasingly uncomfortable to watch, The Rehearsal also shows a high degree of self-awareness about just how uncomfortable his schemes are. This earnest reckoning with the consequences of the show’s confounding existence may be the strongest evidence of how Nathan Fielder is as empathetic as “Nathan Fielder” is not — even if Nathan Fielder is still doing some pretty questionable things in the process of playing “Nathan Fielder.”
I haven’t even gotten into the wide range of memorable real-world characters who take part in Fielder’s rehearsals. They’re as eccentric and funny and cringe-y and human as any of the real-world characters from Nathan For You. Easy as it may be to laugh at or even actively dislike some of them, there’s just enough empathy in how everyone is presented to balance out any mean-spiritedness. Figuring out how empathetic one should be to those who cross certain lines is, in fact, one of the show’s most compelling conflicts.
I have no clue if The Rehearsal can sustain itself for more seasons or if this is just one of those shows that’s gonna have to be a miracle one-and-done. Either way, perhaps the best analysis of the experience is given by one of the actors working for Nathan in the show itself: “It’s weird, but fascinating.”
The Rehearsal premieres on HBO on July 15.
Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic
Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist
and a contributor to Looper and Anime News Network, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge.