How The Rehearsal pushes the boundaries of reality TV

One of the many perplexing joys of The Rehearsal, comedian Nathan Fielder’s elaborate social experiment/docu-reality series for HBO, is how often the show reveals its own illusions.

The central concept of the series is fair enough, if typically absurd: what if you could rehearse frantic conversations or situations in advance? How much could you control if you had all the resources available to prepare? The show depicts both the tedious constructions of facsimile—building a copy bar, hiring actors, stress-testing potential conversations—and the nervous, sometimes sublime suspension of disbelief.

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With The Rehearsal and his previous show, Comedy Central’s cult hit Nathan For You, Fielder drew laughs (or second-hand embarrassment or horror) as the ultimate commitment to slightly-offensive ideas carried far past the point of meaning, with as deep an absurdity as you could don’t distinguish between silly and serious. Over the course of four seasons, Nathan For You, in which Fielder coached real-life small business owners into audaciously insane schemes (staging a massive celebrity tip-off at a diner for free press, and rebranding a real estate agent as “100% ghost-free,” “Dumb Starbucks”) offered a decent litmus test for one’s tolerance for cringe. The typical Nathan For You viewing experience was a mix of awe at the grandiose stupidity of the scheme, amusement at the lengths Fielder would go, and genuine concern for the businesses.

The Rehearsal takes Fielder’s commitment and the viewers’ fear to new heights. It takes a deliberately false notion – that one can control emotions, or life – and doubles down again and again until that notion looks like unhinged genius. It’s the building blocks of reality TV – contestants both exposed and kept at a distance, the assumption that everything is almost real and the quasi-scripted, crisp editing. (Fielder is an executive producer of the superlatively edited HBO’s How To With John Wilson, which turns mundane city life into brilliant fantasy.) Watching The Rehearsal feels like reaching the edge of reality television—you’re not quite sure what to expect make off. it, skeptical about moving forward, and can’t stop looking.

In the first episode, Fielder helps a trivia enthusiast practice exposing a low-grade, years-long fib to a friend with photorealistic accuracy, including a full-scale replica of Brooklyn’s Alligator Lounge. As all Fielder plots do, the second episode, which aired last Friday, escalates the stakes: Fielder unveils a two-month simulation for Angela, a 40-something born-again Christian who is delaying having children, to test motherhood. We see the Truman Show-esque complicity of Fielder’s set design – per Angela’s wishes, she lives in an Oregon farmhouse with a garden, practicing the adoption of her son “Adam” from a real agency, handed down by his real mother. (Fielder also has the Alligator Lounge replica shipped to a warehouse in Oregon—a good deal of the show’s entertainment is simply wondering how much money he got out of HBO.)

We also see, sometimes simultaneously, the mysterious scaffolding required to sustain this disbelief. Blurring the line between the TV producer’s persona and Nathan For You’s socially awkward, stubborn temper, Fielder edits the adoption scene in real time, asking the real-life mother to elaborate on why she would be “unfit” to be a parent. Big Brother-style cameras filming Angela and a cast of child actors – all playing the part of Adam – in the house, beamed to a control panel in nearby production headquarters. A giant timer on the living room wall counts down the four-hour shifts for the underage actors, as required by law. Employees stealthily replace car seats when Angela isn’t looking, or crawl through a window to tuck a motorized crying doll into the bed for the night shift. (It’s uncomfortable, transgressive to watch toddlers take part in a production they can’t understand and pretend Angela is their mother; it’s also indistinguishable from the work of a child actor on any other show, and arguably not as fraught such as a child’s Instagram account created by adults.)

For viewers, there’s little distinction between on and off stage, but it’s disconcerting, and never less than fascinating, how quickly you take The Rehearsal’s bizarre terms for granted. That’s true even if the concepts shift before us according to Fielder’s exacting vision and spiraling ego, himself mined and adapted for television. If, as Megan Garber argued in the Atlantic, the paranoid style of American reality television post-Survivor taught us to assume the awesome, omniscient power of off-screen producers, The Rehearsal will only heighten the visibility of the machinery. The manufacturer’s twists are plot. When Fielder, who joins Angela’s simulation as a platonic co-parent, feels trapped by the rules he has set for his own project, he changes them.

The Rehearsal’s second episode, in which Fielder outlines his plan for Angela, has renewed a criticism of Fielder’s work as manipulative or mean. It’s fair to say that Angela’s devout faith comes across as crazy, her participation in this project delusional; a potential sim partner for her has since said he takes issue with his portrayal on the show, in which he smokes weed, drives and obsesses over spiritual numbers. But dismissing the episode as manipulation feels like a misreading of The Rehearsal, which consistently pokes fun at its own pretensions and sets up Fielder’s unbridled social anxiety as the butt of the joke. Of course there is manipulation – the discomfort with a person’s portrayal, its perceived fairness or unfairness, is a core principle and landmine for making TV about real people who appear more or less like themselves.

All reality shows contain a certain dance between choreography and chaos that can be seen, between controlled variables and the power of editing, for a product that takes the position of accurate summation, or at least best curation. No one, not even the camp creations of Selling Sunset, or the contestants on Survivor, or the staff of Below Deck, or the castaways on Love Island, have control over their editing. We all act all the time, without saying anything about one’s perception; reality contestants are increasingly doing so, with a semi-public record.

The ultimate TV victim, insofar as there is one, for this concept is Fielder himself. Over the course of the season, he becomes trapped by the limitations and loopholes of his own experiment, which continues to elude his grasp, especially as he becomes a fake co-parent juggling work and life—in other words, babysitting the show and performing. Angela understandably has her own visions for the project and acts accordingly. A separate participant jokes the production without explanation, although you can suggest that it is related to feelings over a deception that, in my opinion, violates an ethical line. (The Rehearsal includes his earlier footage.) In the later episodes, Fielder’s attempts to control variables of perception spiral into an addictively meta, solipsistic Russian doll of impersonations.

Another’s heart is a dark forest, but Fielder seems determined to try to map it anyway. At its core, The Rehearsal is deeply curious about why it is—why we act the way we do, how we behave irrationally, how far we’ll go to avoid vulnerability, how much we want to see other people try. To really see people, their neuroses and inconsistencies and vanities, is messy. Knowing that it is being filmed for public consumption is uncomfortable. To have it meticulously edited, and shot through with an HBO budget carte blanche? It’s good TV, a reality show where extremes come to something real.

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