Nathan Fielder continues to elevate the prank show in ‘The Rehearsal’
But for most of the four seasons of “Nathan for You,” the last of which aired in 2017, Fielder staged convoluted stunts at struggling family shops around Los Angeles under the guise of boosting sales. In one episode of season 2, for example, he simulates a film shoot with a Johnny Depp impersonator in a Hollywood souvenir shop to arouse the curiosity of tourists and entice them to buy trinkets as extras in the “movie” – a business that sort of ends up producing a short film (again, to avoid legal issues) and debuting it at a purpose-built local film festival.
Fielder returns with “The Rehearsal,” a dark, introspective, and highly mannered take on the prank show — Comedy Central meets Charlie Kaufman. Released in six serialized chapters on HBO, it’s his take on the sad, largely no-laugh, sometimes hard-paced prestige comedies that have proliferated in recent years. “Nathan for You” was quick and loath to waste a minute, especially when it could reveal a charming or bewildering human weakness. “The Rehearsal” is more whimsical and the upgrade to an HBO budget is noteworthy. But due to his grayer mood and restrained ambitions, efforts to achieve insight or depth are also more apparent.
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“The Rehearsal” opens with a mostly self-contained (and overly long) episode that serves as the series’ prologue. ‘Nathan’, in both voiceover and director, explains the show’s vanity to its first contestant, Kor, a middle-aged teacher who lied to his pub castmates about having a degree of higher education. At first, a guilt-ridden Kor wants to tell the truth to the person he thinks will react the worst: Tricia, his friend of nearly 20 years. Socially awkward himself, Nathan intends to help those like him by hiring an actor to play Tricia so Kor can practice his confession seemingly dozens of times, with the fake Tricia varying her responses so he can anticipate as much. scenarios as possible. Improbably, Kor never grows impatient with having to rehearse the simulacra so many times.
Because it’s Fielder’s show, it makes the (dryly fun) journey from point A to point B as torturous and expensive as possible, including recreations of Kor’s apartment and regular bar on a platter. Along the way, we get to know the real weirdo that Kor is, but Fielder’s desire to finally pull the rug out from under the participants’ feet decreases the intensity he is striving for.
The next four episodes revolve around Angela, a single woman in her forties who doesn’t know if she wants to become a mother. She is only open to this possibility if she were to do it with a partner and in a country mansion where she can enforce traditional gender roles. His social conservatism ultimately leads to a derailment of the experiment; flawed casting may be to blame here, especially in Angela’s case. But until then, it’s fun to marvel at the absurd length at which Nathan constructs a “rehearsal” of parenthood for Angela. Swapping baby actors every four hours (the maximum time they’re allowed to work) so she can experience what it’s like to take care of a child around the clock is just the point departure. (I would happily watch a companion web series about parents who hand their baby over to a TV crew so that a stranger with no childcare experience can pretend for a week that their child is theirs.)
Fans of arthouse documentaries might recognize the project-salvage improvisations Fielder employs when he encounters an increasingly uncooperative subject. As with the first installment, the show piles up doubles and doubles of doubles, reminiscent of “Synecdoche, New York”, the 2008 Film by Kaufman in which actors rehearsing for a play are played by other actors so they can better observe their own process. Fielder’s series isn’t all that labyrinthine, instead making several wayward pivots, with dark voiceover and soulful piano music that, in the five episodes provided by HBO, tries their best to provide emotional structure and resonance to debates when they veer off course. But if the result is too often forced and airless, at least Fielder can once again boast of having created another singular series unlike anything else on television.
Repetition (30-45 minutes) premieres Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.