Jhe paradox at the heart of The Rehearsal is this: it’s a relatively small show that relies on critical buzz and word of mouth for its success, but it’s also impossible to explain to a newcomer. Here, let me try.
The Rehearsal is an unscripted comedy in which Nathan Fielder prepares audience members for big, uncomfortable real-life moments by meticulously rehearsing every conceivable way the moment could unfold. In the first episode, Fielder meets a man who must tell a colleague that he lied about elements of his education. Fielder hires a doppelganger to play the co-worker, has the doppelganger stealthily interview the real co-worker to learn his ways, builds an exact replica of the bar in which the difficult conversation is to take place (until the half-deflated balloon gets stuck in the air conditioning) and spends day after day going through the conversation, using every permeation of emotion imaginable, so that the actual conversation can flow as smoothly as possible. It’s basically Synecdoche, New York: The Reality Show.
If you’re wondering why HBO would spend what must be an incredibly hefty budget copying an inscrutable arthouse movie from 14 years ago, I have bad news. The puzzle explanation I gave above is just the tip of the iceberg. Because as The Rehearsal goes on, a different story begins to emerge. Fielder tries to help a woman who isn’t sure she’s ready for motherhood by giving her a child to rehearse with. Or, rather, a series of children who are a) seamlessly dispatched in and out of his (fake) home in shifts to comply with child labor laws, and b) designed to age faster than a normal child, so that the woman can experience the full turn of motherhood in a condensed time. Soon, Fielder decides to join the experiment, becoming the fake father to the fake children and the fake husband to the real woman, and everything begins to fall apart. The final episode, which includes a scene where one of the preschool actors screams in anguish because he’s unable to discern the difference between real life and the show’s construction, can count as the 30 minutes of television the most shocking in recent memory.
As such, The Rehearsal has come under constant criticism from viewers, who have accused it of pushing exploitation to the breaking point. And that, you can imagine, is exactly what Fielder wanted. ‘Cause what The Rehearsal is really about is the murky space between fiction and reality.
At first glance, The Rehearsal is simply a cruel reality show; one who delights in pushing his subjects through a parade of exploitation so ruthless that it all begins to feel unpleasant. But dig deeper and you could be forgiven for thinking the real victims are us. Some of the storylines in the series are a bit too simple and some viewpoints a bit too extreme to be convincing. To put it simply: is everything scripted? Could it be that the reality that Fielder has seemingly meticulously constructed is also just a construct?
It is very easy to fall down this rabbit hole. Reddit, for example, has taken to trying to figure out which elements of The Rehearsal are real and which are fake. Lengthy YouTube essays have appeared, attempting to disentangle the show’s dense layers of meaning. When some of the subjects started offering their services on Cameo, a website that allows celebrities to send personalized video messages to fans, things suddenly got worse. Were they doing it because they were rolling over their five minutes of fame? Were they actors who needed money? Or did Fielder commission him, because he knew we knew seeing them on Cameo would confuse the issue, and he’s an evil puppeteer bent on messing with us? The repetition leaves you questioning the nature of reality itself, which is a heavy load for a half-hour comedy.
We may never know the truth. Fielder, in an effort to preserve mystery, did no press to promote the show. The closest thing we have to an explanation comes from the fragments of others. He was a consulting producer on Who Is America?, so he clearly shares Sacha Baron Cohen’s penchant for pushing comedy into unsuspecting worlds. In a recent Vulture profile, Derren Brown was cited as a key influence – a figure who also blurs the line between fiction and reality to an uncomfortable degree. But that’s all we have left to do. For now, and maybe forever, The Rehearsal simply exists as a mystery designed to break your mind.