How The Rehearsal pushes the boundaries of reality TV | Reality TV

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

The central concept of the series is straightforward enough, if typically absurd: what if you could rehearse fraught conversations or situations in advance? How much could you control if you had every resource available to prepare? The show depicts both the tedious constructions of facsimile – building a replica bar, hiring actors, stress-testing potential conversations – and the unnerving, at times sublime suspension of disbelief.

With The Rehearsal and his prior show, Comedy Central’s cult hit Nathan For You, Fielder drew laughs (or secondhand embarrassment, or horror) as the ultimate committer to a bit – harebrained ideas carried far past the point of sense, with such deadpan absurdity that you couldn’t distinguish between silly and serious. Over four seasons, Nathan For You, in which Fielder coached real small business owners into audaciously insane plans (staging a massive celebrity tip at a diner for free press, rebranding a realtor 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 some mixture of awe at the grandiose stupidity of the scheme, amusement at the lengths to which Fielder would go, and genuine concern for the businesses.

The Rehearsal takes Fielder’s commitment and viewer trepidation to new heights. It takes a knowingly false notion – that one can control emotions, or life – and doubles down again and again until that notion looks like unhinged genius. There are the building blocks of reality-ish TV – participants both exposed and kept at a remove, the assumption that everything is quasi-real and quasi-scripted, crisp editing. (Fielder is an executive producer of the superlatively edited HBO’s How To With John Wilson, which transforms mundane city life into glorious fantasia.) Watching The Rehearsal feels like reaching the outer fringes of reality television – you’re not quite sure what to make of it, skeptical of going further, and can’t stop looking.

In the first episode, Fielder helps a trivia enthusiast practice revealing a low-grade, years-long fib to a friend with photorealistic accuracy, including a full-scale working 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 long simulation for Angela, a 40-something born-again Christian who put off having children, to test-run motherhood. We see the Truman Show-esque intricacy of Fielder’s set design – per Angela’s wishes, she lives at a farmhouse in Oregon with a garden, and rehearses the adoption of her son “Adam” from a real agency, handed over by his real mother. (Fielder also has the replica Alligator Lounge transported to a warehouse in Oregon – a good portion of the show’s entertainment is simply marveling at the amount of money he got out of HBO.)

We also see, sometimes simultaneously, the arcane scaffolding required to sustain this disbelief. Fielder, blurring the line between the TV producer persona and Nathan For You’s socially awkward, stone-faced disposition, edits the adoption scene in real time, asking the real mother to elaborate on why she’d be “unfit” to be a parent. Big Brother-style cameras film Angela and a cast of child actors – all playing the role of Adam – in the house, beamed to a control board in the production’s nearby headquarters. A giant timer on the living room wall counts down the four-hour shifts for the underage actors, as required by law. Staff members stealthily switch out carseats when Angela’s not looking, or crawl through a window to slip a motorized crying doll into the crib for the night shift. (It is uncomfortable, borderline disturbing, to see toddlers participate in a production they cannot understand, pretending Angela is their mother; it’s also indistinguishable from the work of a child actor on any other show, nor arguably as fraught as, say, an child’s Instagram account created by adults.)

For viewers, there is little distinction between on- and offstage, yet it’s disconcerting, and never less than fascinating, how quickly you take The Rehearsal’s bizarre terms as a given. That’s true even as the terms shift before us according to Fielder’s exacting vision and spiraling ego, itself extracted and fitted for TV. If, as Megan Garber argued in the Atlantic, the paranoid style of American reality television post-Survivor taught us to assume the awesome, all-knowing power of off-screen producers, The Rehearsal just levels up the visibility of the machinations. The producer’s contortions 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.

Photograph: Allyson Riggs/HBO

The Rehearsal’s second episode, in which Fielder outlines his plan for Angela, has renewed a critique of Fielder’s work as manipulative or mean. It is fair to say that Angela’s devout faith comes off as kooky, her participation in this project delusional; a potential simulation partner for her has since said he takes issue with his portrayal on the show, in which he smokes weed, drives, and fixates on spiritual numbers. But to dismiss the episode as manipulation feels like a misread of The Rehearsal, which consistently pokes at its own pretensions and sets up Fielder’s unfettered social anxiety as the butt of the joke. Of course it’s manipulation – the discomfort with a person’s portrayal, its perceived fairness or unfairness, is a core tenet and landmine of making television about real people appearing more or less like themselves.

All reality shows contain some dance between choreography and watchable chaos, between controlled variables and the power of editing, for a product that assumes the position of accurate summary, or at least best curation. No one, not even the camp creations of Selling Sunset, or the contestants on Survivor, or the staff on Below Deck, or the castaways on Love Island, has control over their editing. We are all performing all the time, with no final say on one’s perception; reality participants do so at a heightened degree, with a semi-public record.

The ultimate TV victim, to the extent that there is one, of this concept is Fielder himself. Over the course of the season, he grows trapped by the confines and gaps of his own experiment, which keeps dodging his grasp, especially as he becomes faux co-parent juggling work and life – in other words, childcare in the show and making the show. Angela understandably has her own visions for the project and acts accordingly. A separate participant ghosts the production without explanation, although you can infer it’s related to emotions over a deception that does, in my opinion, bump up against an ethical line. (The Rehearsal includes his prior footage.) In the later episodes, Fielder’s attempts to control variables of perception spiral into an addictively meta, solipsistic Russian doll of impersonations.

The heart of another is a dark forest, but Fielder seems determined to try to map it anyway. At its core, The Rehearsal is deeply curious about why that is – why we act the ways we do, how we behave irrationally, the lengths we’ll go to avoid vulnerability, the amount we’ll watch other people try. To truly see people, their neuroses and inconsistencies and vanities, is messy. To know it’s being filmed for public consumption is discomfiting. To have that meticulously edited, and shot through with an HBO budget carte blanche? That’s good television, a reality show in which extreme contrivances get to something real.

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