In 2013, Nathan Fielder blessed television with one of the best comedies of the 2010s, Nathan for You, in which he played an exaggerated version of himself—a man developing absurd tactics to help struggling business owners. Since then, he has continued to perfect his awkward, deadpan brand of humor behind the scenes, on shows like HBO’s How to With John Wilson and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? Five years after his cult Comedy Central series aired its final season, Fielder is back and better than ever with a brilliant six-episode follow-up, The Rehearsal, which is currently streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
As with Nathan for You, The Rehearsal finds the comedian inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people—this time with the more personal goal of helping them prepare for big situations in their lives. In what can only be described as an epic social experiment, he has the eccentric subjects rehearse every possible outcome in elaborately planned simulations until they’re ready to perform whatever serious conversation or big decision must occur in real life.
The pilot episode centers Kor Skeet, a quirky New Yorker who spent years lying to his bar trivia team about having an advanced degree and is now considering confessing this secret to one of his teammates. For another subject—Angela, a 40-something religious woman who is trying to decide whether she’s ready to have children—Fielder goes so far as to cast a series of child actors, from infants to teenagers, to play her kid, aging them up three years every week.
The Rehearsal reminds me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York in the best ways, and feels like a larger-scale extension of Nathan for You’s amazing final episode, “Finding Frances.” Given the massive budget and creative freedom that comes with an HBO production, Fielder is allowed more space to explore his most bonkers ideas—and dials it up to 11. For the various experiments, full-scale sets of real places are built on a large soundstage; intricate flowcharts break down every possible situation; and actors are hired to stand in for loved ones, friends, and even bystanders. Despite the meticulous planning and attention to detail that goes into each scenario by Fielder and his team, the reality-bending series still manages to take us to unexpected places and will always keep you on the edge of your seat.
It’s a fascinating and ridiculous concept that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s fiction as it peppers in Fielder’s trademark humor. Early on in the first episode, Kor compares Fielder to master manipulator Willy Wonka, and it’s a comparison that doesn’t feel so far off. He goes to outrageous lengths to keep the rehearsals moving along, and finds himself growing heavily invested in some experiments, thus becoming a subject of it himself. It’s a premise that can’t avoid failure no matter how many charts are created and scenarios are tested, but that’s part of what makes The Rehearsal work so well.
With an hilarious and over-the-top approach to seemingly simple concepts, The Rehearsal has a thought-provoking and sincere underbelly, and the result is a fascinating examination of human nature. It’s unhinged but endearing, cringe-y but self-aware, and uncomfortable but surprisingly cathartic. Fielder has always managed to craft unique and gripping television, but he pulls out all the stops with The Rehearsal and has created something that is unlike anything else on TV right now. He has already proven to be one of the greatest comedic minds, but The Rehearsal feels like his most ambitious and insightful work that, above all else, solidifies him as a genius.