‘The Rehearsal’ Review: Nathan Fielder’s HBO Series Is Brilliant

The Canadian comedian’s first series since “Nathan for You” sees him helping real people rehearse for major life moments — and then it goes further.

At its core, “The Rehearsal” is a rather simple series to explain. Creator, director, and star Nathan Fielder sets up practice sessions to help various people find the best way to tackle their problems. They could be confessing a secret to a friend (and using the rehearsals to deduce the safest approach), or they could be weighing a major life decision (and trying to decide which path is right for them). Then, after being coached until they’re comfortable, they attempt to enact the agreed-upon plan in real life.

The concept, as well as its largely benevolent intent, isn’t far removed from Fielder’s 2013 Comedy Central classic, “Nathan for You.” Fielder narrates the episodes. He’s active on both sides of the camera, and rather than giving a boost to small businesses, his overarching goal is to help each subject overcome an obstacle.

But the rehearsals in “The Rehearsal” are stunningly intricate. Fielder hovers over his “actors” like David Fincher in a mobile laptop harness, supervising a level of meticulous thought and labor that makes “Dumb Starbucks” (a second-season entry that’s often and rightly heralded as one of this century’s smartest, funniest pieces of comedy) look as straightforward as ordering your morning coffee. There are org charts that go on forever, plotting how each choice can lead to an alternate outcome. The scrutiny shown by paid, professional actors is matched by the prop masters, set designers, and the rest of an uncommonly devoted crew, all of whom fully capitalize on an HBO budget to provide everything each participant may need as well as every experimental pivot Fielder decides is necessary.

And yet, there is still more to admire. Beyond the wow factor earned by the aforementioned elements, Fielder’s personal investment in each outcome elevates the series even higher. His initial motivation and what he discovers within the hysterical, emotional rehearsals — the joyful satisfactions and existential fears — provide an eye-opening through-line that makes “The Rehearsal” as addictive as it is endearing. Through five of the six episodes, the most prominent drawback is how he can find a proper resolution to the can of worms he’s spilled open — and if he should.

That’s a question for another day. Given the five long years between Fielder’s breakout and this, his next creative effort, the wait was certainly worth it, even if explaining much more ahead of release may deprive audiences of the many, many delights in discovering what “The Rehearsal” can do. Sticking to points revealed in the trailer, Fielder’s first volunteer is a 50-year-old teacher named Core Skeet. He responds to an ad on Craigslist — asking for a video answer to the question, “Is there something you’re avoiding?” — and welcomes Fielder into his apartment to discuss his dilemma. But once there, Fielder tells him there’s a reason their 10-minute greeting has gone well. “Everything that’s happened so far today, I’ve rehearsed it dozens of times, these exact words, in a replica of your home, with an actor playing you,” Fielder says.

Setting the how aside (it’s both simpler and more invasive than I’d guessed), Core takes the reveal pretty well. Soon, Fielder is escorting him to the soundstage where the “Rehearsal” crew designed an exact replica of Core’s apartment. There, Fielder hired an actor to play Core (two-time Tony nominee K. Todd Freeman!), so he could try out different jokes, greetings, and talking points ahead of meeting the real Core. “This is what we can do for your life,” Fielder says. “You’ll know what to say for everyone.” [scenario].”

Putting that much effort into convincing one possible participant to agree to do the show should tell you just how far the team is willing to go on his behalf. But you’ll still be dumbstruck. The first episode, which clocks in at just over 44 minutes (the next four are all between 29-32 minutes), chronicles the entirety of Core’s rehearsal and “live” results. For how many laughs there are in the lead-up, the real deal is tense. You’re invested in the plan — in the rehearsals paying off — nearly as much as you are in Core itself. Each deviation, each apparent snafu, each beat of what would be a moderately interesting exchange to overhear sans context is given genuine human stakes. If “The Rehearsal” was only about whether Fielder’s approach pays off every week, it would still be among the best episodic reality shows on TV.

“The Rehearsal”

Allyson Riggs

Booth Fielder goes further. The second episode introduces a rehearsal that runs through the rest of the season. Another entry adds a third participant, while another takes a deep dive into actors being asked to implement “The Fielder Method” (which probes the depths and purpose of at least some form of method acting). The episodes pose and resolve questions specific to their individual arcs, but there’s another aspect that ties the season together (and that I’ve been asked not to spoil). Early on, Fielder says, “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that. Humor is my go-to instinct, but every joke is a gamble.” That’s a big statement for a comedian, and a clear motivation to see if intense study, dedication, and practice can help ease the worry of a man walking around, thinking everyone he meets is unsettled by his presence.

Considering the perfectionist streak running through the production, it’s no surprise “The Rehearsal” is thoughtfully edited and executed, with an ending to the premiere that packs quite a punch. (Fans of “How To with John Wilson,” which Fielder produces, should pick up on their shared poetry — in narration and composition.) Anyone tuning in purely for a good time will find plenty of well-orchestrated punchlines, off-the- cuff chuckles, and meme-able moments. Reality fans will latch on to a number of indelible characters, as Fielder continues to dig up priceless, one-of-a-kind personas. But most of all, “The Rehearsal” will move you. Even as a genre hybrid, rigorously blending raw reactions with scripted machinations, Fielder’s series honestly explores his subjects’ journeys as well as his own.

Whatever the finale may bring, there’s plenty more to mine in a series that’s easy to enjoy and hard to stop thinking about.

Grade: A-

“The Rehearsal” premieres Friday, July 15 at 11 pm ET on HBO.

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