In the early 80s of Apple Computer, employees would refer to Steve Jobs as having a “reality distortion field,” a belief that he could change the world through simply mentally forcing whatever reality that was wanted be true. Through this reality distortion field, Jobs could push people to greatness, seem incredibly naive, while also doing incredible things. This season in Nathan For You, we’ve seen Nathan Fielder create his own reality distortion field, as he’s tricked seemingly the entire state of California into believing working for free at a moving company is a new workout, or tricking a child into changing his adult dreams for the sake of a sporting goods store. With “Smokers Allowed,” Nathan’s reality distortion field helps him to believe that he’s a success with his latest plan and feel what love from another feels like in what is essentially Nathan For You’s own version of Synecdoche, New York.
In order to help the 1881 Club, Nathan suggests to owner Ellen Sancer that being able to smoke in the bar would attract more businesses. However the law states that smoking indoors in public places is no longer allowed…unless it’s part of a theatrical production and smoking is integral to the plot. Nathan decides to put on a “play” at the small bar, entitled “Smokers Allowed,” which consists of two seats behind a curtain, where people can just watch people drink and smoke. Once Nathan presents it to the first two patrons, they believe it to be “nothing in a way, but profound,” and a member of the theatre department at Glendale Community College compares him to Doubt writer John Patrick Shanley. Completely throwing caution to the wind – and any attempt to save the bar really – he decides to see how big “Smokers Allowed” can get and puts himself fully towards the theatre.
It’s rare that Nathan puts his own interests ahead of the business he’s trying to help, since he usually does both concurrently, but at a certain point he completely abandons 1881 Club for the stage. When he mounts his recreation of “Smokers Allowed,”’s first show, he even recasts the part originally played by Sancer, in order to make the play as great as possible. He transcribes every moment of that first show, adds merchandise to the bar, raises drink prices and expands the theatre section to a whopping seven seats. By the end of the his staging, he’s doing the exact opposite of trying to help bar patrons smoke while they drink, instead after “Smokers Allowed” he warns his audience of the dangers of smoking.
More than any previous season – almost as if the desire to find success in his businesses and his own life has become too much – Nathan has become increasingly determined to find approval and acceptance. Just the slightest positive reinforcement causes him this week to go for his own goals. Even creepier is the way he utilizes his actors to earn even more positive reinforcement. As he helps one couple practice their parts, he trains with a woman whose most important line is saying “I love you” to her boyfriend. Nathan claims he doesn’t believe it and gets her to say “I love you” to himself over and over, until he believes it and is tearing up. Every time he says “again,” it becomes creepily more apparent that this is for his own satisfaction and that the loneliness we’ve seen in the past few seasons is getting too much. Now, he’s getting actors to give him the happiness he has sought since the beginning of the series.
After showing “Smokers Allowed” to Sancer, she says that she didn’t really care for the show. Not liking the answer, Nathan realizes he can get the answer he wants by getting Alice – who played the part of Sancer – to come in and tell him that she loved the show, which he asks her to repeat over and over as well. It might not be the true reality, but if Nathan can create the reality he wants, it’s just as good.
When Nathan For You started, the show was more often along the lines of a hidden camera type situation. For example, create a poo-flavored frozen yogurt and watch brave souls attempt the strange flavor, while Nathan sits back and enjoys the reactions. But this season, Nathan is far more aggressive, ready to form the situations to such a crazy extent that he can control the result. It’s no less hilarious and a determined Nathan is a brilliantly creepy Nathan. In the last few weeks, he’s manipulated children, tricked drunks into spending hundreds of dollars and force people to accept that fat people should be able to ride horses. It’s no longer about watching the results of his crazy ideas, it’s about Nathan getting crazy and watching the results of his increasing loss of sanity. “Smokers Allowed” is Nathan getting what he wants through the guise of a business idea and the further he goes down this rabbit hole, the more wild and incredibly funny it’s getting.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.