I always think that I’m still this 13-year-old boy who doesn’t really know how to be an adult, pretending to live my life, taking notes for when I’ll really have to do it. Kind of like I’m in a dress rehearsal for a junior high play.Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Sunrise (1995)
As constant social connection becomes an ever increasing part of our lives, an infinite mesh of accessibility and ever-shifting expectations and pressures, it seems our anxiety increases along with this. There is a constantly humming pang in the stomach that exists in tandem with our inability to ever know if we’re navigating any given situation correctly. It feels as if there’s no more room for mistakes, like one wrong decision will cascade out and create lasting negative impact on your livelihood. We’re guarded, nervous, unsure of ourselves, even with our closest friends. Maybe it’s just a part of being human, these nerves. This inability to know or predict what’s next, the pervading feeling that we’re just waiting for the bomb to drop, that every interaction is just moments away from going the wrong direction. We all wish we could prepare. We all wish there were some way to simulate those outcomes, to understand a little better how that next interaction might go. Maybe if we could prepare; if we could understand, visualize, and experience every possible outcome of any given situation, we’d be able to navigate life a little better. For most of us, the world where that can happen is just a dream. All we get are the little scenarios we design in our heads while pondering the day ahead in the shower or while restlessly unable to sleep at night. For the chaotically unhinged and pensively introspective enigma that is Nathan Fielder, with seemingly unlimited funds and a team of cameras behind him, preparing for every eventuality is suddenly very accessible.
That’s the underlying elevator pitch for HBO’s The Rehearsal. Nathan Fielder, best known for his Comedy Central series Nathan For You (2013), sets out to help people rehearse that big moment, conversation, or step in life they’ve been dreading, whatever it may be. At first it seems like the same ludicrous, no limits antics fans of Nathan’s have become accustomed to: chaos under the false pretense of assistance flooded with trademark deadpan humor, pregnant pauses, and the persistent but reliable peculiarities of humanity. But with Finding Frances, the cinematic 85-minute finale of Nathan For You, Nathan had left the confines of straightforward absurdist comedy to become a director of mesmerizing metafiction, utilizing his ventures as a way to understand himself and the world around him a little better. Everything presented throughout the show is ridiculous enough on its face conceptually, but Nathan’s energy is so persistently earnest, you quickly just want to see it through. It’s beguiling and fascinating, a constant deluge of layered quandaries and dense portrayals of existence to parse out as a viewer.
Throughout this first season, it never stops being a completely fascinating exercise in escalation or comedy, of course, as it seems each moment is introducing an entirely new variable that shifts everything you thought you understood in an entirely new direction. The core of it, however, always returns to Nathan: quietly reflecting on the chaos unfolding around him. There’s always an intrigue to it all, something being discovered, these little revelations within the meticulous planning. Within the rehearsals Nathan often quietly questions his own ethical and moral positioning, whether it be with the murky participation of many of the subjects or with his own agency within these stories, slowly beginning to question the efficacy of these journeys when he has to go to such great lengths to engineer his desired outcome. Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson (2016), a beautiful documentary sure to alter any viewer’s perspective on how we view documentaries as well as life itself, focuses on the liminal moments between performative existence in a way that opens a door to begin focusing on those liminal moments in everything else, and The Rehearsal is no exception. Everything here exists in the in between, in the revelations when the dust settles after the comedy and chaos have played out.
Nathan is endlessly enigmatic, an impossible puzzle either so phenomenally good at his portrayal of the character of Nathan, or just so phenomenally good at being as incredibly weird as he is earnestly vulnerable that you can never really tell where that line might be, or if it exists at all. These lines seem to be what make The Rehearsal tick, the unknowability between where reality ends and fiction begins, the impossible concept of where the actual rehearsal ends, whether any of it or all of it is an act, where the script stops and starts. Is anything really happening on the fly, or is all of it ensconced within a Nathan Fielder flowchart so Machiavellian that we can’t even really comprehend its creation? The better question, and one posed and answered by metafiction master Abbas Kiarostami some 28 years ago: does it matter?
In the third and final film of Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, Through The Olive Trees (1994), an actor plays a fictionalized version of Kiarostami in a depiction of the process filming the trilogy’s last film, Life, and Nothing More (1992). Having pulled the camera back so far through his own work, the lines of fiction and reality become infinitely blurred, culminating in a dizzying metafilmic exploration of what it means to be an actor within your reality, what it means for art to imitate life and for life to imitate art, where those lines intersect, coalesce, and whether any of that truly matters if art can evoke the same raw emotion that reality can. A concept further explored in Kiarostami’s later period works Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012), the endless fascination with our reality as constructed by performance is a perfect lens to view The Rehearsal through, ultimately with the understanding that the lines of where Nathan’s reality begin and end are far less important than the truths that he finds within. And truth he finds in his journey, a brilliantly recursive and ever additive adventure where each episode finds itself a new angle where Nathan finds himself more in and out of the process of creating the show.
The construction of The Rehearsal itself is brilliant in that it almost has none at all – each episode is certainly self contained, but it almost seems that the more it unfolds, the less sense it makes. There’s rarely any coherent logic to why any one thing is happening in any specific spot, almost like a stream of consciousness, on the spot miracle that just unfolds when you turn the TV on to watch each new episode. It begins with rigid structure akin to Nathan For You, a perfectly plotted episode with specific beats that sets up an expectation for what the structure might be going forward, but it immediately unravels with the introduction of Angela, the show’s only featured character who might be even more bizarrely enigmatic than Nathan himself. While Angela appears to have specific and stringent beliefs based almost entirely on her religious background, everything beyond that singular note seems to move and shift imperceptibly, and Nathan struggles to understand how to raise a simulated family with her as often as the audience struggles to understand how she functions, or what exactly her motivations are.
It is the show’s distilled essence, however, this enigmatic atmosphere, that permeates throughout. As each, seemingly increasingly strange, character appears and makes their exit from the show, their ineffable dimensionality is what defines them, the fact that no matter how much preparation and understanding we may claim to glean from our small window into their existence, they remain impossible to pin down. Life is so much more than what we may be able to rigidly define in some crafted performance, and people are so much more than we may be able to ever understand, no matter how intimately we may attempt to understand them. But, for each person who upsettingly spills antisemitic sentiment due to their frustratingly limiting beliefs, or for each person who may initially be refreshingly aggressive in standing up against that very antisemitism only to later reveal themselves to be disturbingly Zionist, it all argues in favor of what Nathan’s show distils down into: that empathetic humanist core. While Nathan’s methodology may ultimately prove itself to be an exercise in excessive planning that cannot truly recreate reality in the meaningful way he desires, the heart-wrenching final episode proves that it’s maybe not all that important. Maybe life is better with surprises, maybe life is better with a little unknowability but, above all else, maybe life is better when we take a little more time to consider each other. To spend less time being so rigidly insular and spend more time trying to understand ourselves and the people we care about.
The Rehearsal is the vivid realization of a collective fantasy, this persistent curiosity that we could perhaps practise life until there was nothing left to chance. The problem is life doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that. We’re so wrapped up in our own insecurities and anxieties that we tend to forget everyone else is going through the same thing, so caught up in trying to figure out what is reality and what is fiction that we tend to miss the bigger picture. The Rehearsal is not the complex machinations of a rehearsal within a rehearsal within a rehearsal ultimately leading to an absent father and an overdose, despite the chaotic twists and turns that might offer. The Rehearsal is one man going to great lengths to determine his own ethical positioning within his show, ultimately finding that there’s no possible depth of immersion that can recreate the gut feeling a mother has with her son, but that truth can always be found in the process of searching for empathy. We’re all just figuring stuff out and messing up along the way, after all.