Television

Nathan Fielder’s unsettling show The Rehearsal is like a three-dimensional representation of autistic thinking. By Patrick Marlborough.

The Rehearsal

Nathan Fielder (centre) in a scene from The Rehearsal.
Nathan Fielder (centre) in a scene from The Rehearsal.
Credit: HBO / Binge

There’s a small exchange in episode two of Nathan Fielder’s new series The Rehearsal that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Angela is a woman in her mid-40s who Fielder has moved into an isolated townhouse in rural Oregon to simulate the experience of raising a son by making her “parent” a revolving cast of exponentially ageing child actors. She is on a series of dates, searching for someone to join her as the father figure in her “rehearsal”. She asks one prospective partner: “What scares you the most?” He pauses for a beat, then replies: “First off, it’s eels.”

Which one of us watching at home was prepared for that answer?

The Rehearsal is cult comedian Nathan Fielder’s new unreal reality television series in which he attempts to prepare people for various situations – a confession to a friend, being a mother, asking for your share of an inheritance – by running through all the possible permutations of a scenario in increasingly elaborate and meticulous re-creations.

These might look like a 1:1 re-creation of a Brooklyn bar on a soundstage, burying store-bought carrots in a vegetable garden or surreptitiously teaching the answers to pub trivia questions by asking actors to pose as construction workers or cops who mutter things like “it’s days like these I curse the Chinese for inventing gunpowder” as they walk by.

Critics have struggled with what to make of Fielder since Nathan for You (2013-2017), regurgitating the same talking points about whether his work is exploitative, manipulative, phoney or cruel. In The Rehearsal, Fielder has literally built a metatextual dollhouse that embraces these criticisms, ultimately turning them on himself and his work in what becomes an enthrallingly intimate and self-aware study of his limitations as an artist and ours as an audience.

“I’m not good at meeting people for the first time,” he tells us in the series’ opening, after we’ve watched him make awkward small talk with his first subject. “I’ve been told my personality makes people uncomfortable.” It’s then revealed that the awkward small talk was itself rehearsed in a perfect replica of the subject’s apartment, down to the books on their shelves, after Fielder had his crew pose as maintenance workers who made a 3D scan of the space so that they could rebuild it.

From the beginning, The Rehearsal wants us to know that there is no limit.

That first episode has the subject comparing Fielder to Willy Wonka – “wait,” he says, “wasn’t he the bad guy?” – and ends with Fielder sitting alone at the replica bar as Gene Wilder sings “Pure Imagination” over the closing credits. You can’t imagine how the series can escalate after that – what could be wilder than that bizarro bar? – but then you’re taken down a Wonka tunnel of possibilities, where the end points of obsessive strains of thought stemming from anxiety, alienation and atomisation are brought to life like hilariously perverse Saw traps.

What killed me watching this show – as it got weirder and weirder, as it made me mutter “how?” and “no!” and “oh, okay…” over and over again – was just how relatable I found it. People often speculate whether Nathan Fielder the artist is on the autism spectrum or if it’s just his schtick. As someone on the spectrum, I don’t think it matters if the real Fielder is autistic. The Rehearsal is the most perfect realisation of autistic thinking I have seen in any piece of media outside four-hour Smash Bros lore video essays on YouTube.

Autistic thinking can take different guises and assume various patterns. It features a preoccupation with what-ifs, a deep desire – or habit of – “rehearsing” social interactions. The ability to disguise one’s autistic self (known as masking) and to perform a “suitable” self are common autistic traits. Without necessarily intending to, The Rehearsal scans as a stripped-down DSM entry that explains high-functioning autistic life.

In the show, autistic thought is realised with a seemingly bottomless budget. Fielder homes in on the crushing frustration that comes with a sense of unfixable otherness, and he doesn’t let go until he wrings out something between an explanation and a confession. No matter what he tries, he never finds whatever it is he’s chasing. “Emotions are a funny thing,” he says towards the end of the series, as the artificiality of his experiments starts to weigh on him. “They’re not easy to engineer. After all, there’s only so much you can do to deceive yourself.”

There is only so much you and I can do, sure. But Fielder can go as far as making his fake-drug-addict-teen son slip down a playground slide and emerge as a toddler at the bottom so that he can take a second crack at fatherhood. He can ask one of his acting students to surrender his apartment so Fielder can live there and better understand why the student finds “the Fielder method” so disquieting. He can get the aforementioned bar shipped from New York to Oregon so that he can have a quiet place to think about whether he’s gone too far or not far enough in his attempts to prepare himself and others for things you can’t prepare for, such as someone blurting out that their biggest fear in life is eels.

“I often feel envious of others,” he says towards the end of the episode with the eel man in it. “The way they can immerse themselves in a world with so little effort. The way they can just believe.”

That envy animates much of The Rehearsal and it is as peculiar as it is universal. Fielder makes himself an indifferent mascot for a deeply atomised generation that sees in his deadpan goofs and high-concept screwball antics a profound truth about the innate loneliness that stems from always having to perform for ourselves as well as the rest of the world – the exhaustion of always having to be “on”.

“The last step in understanding someone is always just a guess,” he concludes, as one of his elaborate labyrinths again leads to disappointment. Nothing can prepare you for life’s unexpectedness.

The Rehearsal begs us to ask how much control we’re willing to exert over our lives, and at which point our powerlessness might lead to a sort of off-kilter acceptance. What level of artifice – in ourselves, others, our society – are we willing to live with? “It’s hard to know what exactly is hidden beneath the smile of an actor,” Fielder admits, as we’re wondering how much of his role is performance and how much is sincere. “But once in a while it’s nice to pretend that everything’s okay.” 

The Rehearsal is streaming on Binge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2022 as "Television on the spectrum".

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