It’s human nature to imagine having the ability to nail a particular life moment in one go. To play back your mistakes in certain situations and think about what would’ve happened if you’d just said or done the right thing. They say practice makes perfect, and in Nathan Fielder’s new experimental comedy series, “The Rehearsal,” he tries his best to create an environment in which something akin to perfection (in certain scenarios) is possible.
HBO describes “The Rehearsal” — starring, directed by, executive produced by, and primarily written by Fielder — as an exploration of “the lengths one man [Fielder] will go to reduce the uncertainty of everyday life.” Reducing life’s hiccups doesn’t necessarily suggest a quest for perfection, but as the six-episode first season (five of which were viewed for this review) delves deeper into this experiment, it reveals both Fielder and his subjects’ quest for what they would consider “perfect” — even if they don’t necessarily vocalize it.
Like in Fielder’s previous hybrid comedy docuseries, Comedy Central’s “Nathan For You,” “The Rehearsal” finds the comedian inserting himself into the lives of “real” people in hopes of improving some specific facet. Fielder’s work continues to straddle that line of alt-comedy and docuseries, thought “The Rehearsal” manages to take that concept to the next level and reveal just how much stranger truth — or hypothetical, proposed truth, as these “rehearsals” aspire to reflect — can be than fiction.
As Fielder’s brand of comedy relies on his working with real, “normal,” everyday people, the secret to his success ends up being the earnestness that exists within his work, alongside his own particular brand of awkwardness and dryness. (Fielder’s natural, somewhat unnerving nature is something that he addresses up top in “The Rehearsal,” as well as something he ends up having to reckon with over the course of the series, as it affects his ability to properly anticipate his subjects’ behavior and reservations throughout their rehearsals.) Even more so than with “Nathan For You,” the key here in “The Rehearsal” is that his subjects — who come to him for help with things ranging from inconsequential to preparation for big life events — are not exactly the butts of the joke here. The situations they (and Fielder) create in trying to plan for every specific thing are.
“The Rehearsal” definitely captures the difference between a comedian like Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen, as Fielder is never throwing comedic punches at people, even when he very clearly does not share the same values as them or might even feel like they deserve to be the butt of the joke. The audience is allowed to laugh at Fielder’s subjects (who are more like “marks” in Baron Cohen’s work), without a doubt, but he and his team have no problem showing the humanity of them at the same time. For example, in one rehearsal, the series reveals a subject’s casual bigotry while also showing how fiercely loyal and kind they can be. Not every subject ends up looking great in the series, but it’s only because a mirror doesn’t always make a person look great. Both Fielder and Baron Cohen at least overlap in that sense, providing enough metaphorical rope for the people they spotlight to hang themselves if that’s the type of person they are.
During a heated moment, one of Fielder’s subjects calls him out for making them the joke of his show, to which Fielder retorts, “No one’s the joke. The situations are funny but interesting too.” It’s a point that also speaks to Fielder’s own description of the series and its very premise as “silly and serious.” As the series quickly reveals just how meticulous Fielder and his team are when it comes to executing the concept of the rehearsals, it also becomes even clearer as it goes on just how intentional even its basic structure as a television show is. But having the premiere episode follow a likable (albeit quirky) everyman whose rehearsal premise stems from a non-earth-shattering secret, “The Rehearsal” immediately shows its hand as a well-intentioned and good-natured series. It shows how this premise, as bizarre as it may be, can lead to satisfactory results when the subject puts in at least a fraction of as much effort as Fielder and his team do. Because Fielder and his team put in a lot of effort. Willy Wonka-esque levels, even.
As “The Rehearsal” reveals, Fielder wants to help people, but he only truly knows how to do so through intricate flow charts of scripted and potential conversational dialogue, to-scale reconstructions of people’s homes and hangouts, some light stalking (for in-depth research), and all manner of things that are supposed to take the spontaneity out of life — but in a good way. Considering how much planning goes into the rehearsals, it’s interesting to realize that this season does end up going in some truly unexpected places.
While Fielder does multiple rehearsals throughout the series, seemingly making that the gimmick of the week, the series is committed to doing both short-term and long-term rehearsals. While the premiere focuses on the former — and reveals that a lot of time, effort, and money still go into the shorter-term rehearsals — an interesting component is that that experience goes on to affect Fielder’s behavior and approach in future short-term and long-term rehearsals. Because the basic execution of this premise means that neither the show nor Fielder can just move on, even when it’s on to the next subject.
There’s sort of a falling dominoes effect to the series, as things get more and more intricate and Fielder gives himself completely to the concept. In terms of longer-term rehearsals, there’s seemingly no clocking in or out for Fielder and his team, as they attempt to make the experience as realistic as they possibly can. But even when stepping away from that, back to the shorter-term, it’s all to serve the premise. The fourth episode of the series is absolutely phenomenal because of this, as Fielder ends up revealing what “rehearsal Inception” looks like, and he does so without it ever feeling like a gimmick.
“The Rehearsal” ultimately blurs the lines so much that it’s hard to separate the truth from the fiction. Because the fiction is in service of finding the truth; and the truth also ends up in service of fueling the fiction, to find the truth. It’s hard not to watch the show in awe, even between the laughs (and cringing), and Fielder’s commitment to the premise and his craft — even when his subjects don’t share the same level of commitment — is more than impressive. It’s an absolute creative feat.
“The Rehearsal” debuts July 15 on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes available weekly on Fridays.