The following review contains minor spoilers for The Rehearsal Season 1, now on HBOMax
In Nathan Fielder’s newest television pursuit, he stages elaborate rehearsals for future stressful scenarios that he (or the other people on the show) are expecting to find themselves in. Whether it be telling a good friend that you’ve been lying to them or the entire act of parenthood itself, Fielder thinks that the only way to adequately prepare for life is to do it all ahead of time. Step by step, with actors studying real people and playing them to the best of their abilities.
Described by critics as an “ethical queasiness” and both “cruel and arrogant“, The Rehearsal managed to pick up top reviews while at the same time baffling the majority of the audience. If everything that Fielder said was real, instead of acting, was in fact real instead of acting, is the show still morally okay? Which parts of the show are Nathan Fielder the actor, and which parts are Nathan the character? Does it even matter?
From an ethical point of view, the show continues to twist many of the brightest reviewer minds around in knots as they struggle to reconcile their enjoyment of the show with the emotional suffering of some of the people (characters?) on the screen. For those of you that haven’t seen it, it’s as if someone hinted that Game of Thrones was actually a documentary, with all of the emotional distress and none of the killing.
What shocks me about critic and fan’s responses is not that they are debating morality, it’s that they truly seem to think that the show is revolutionary. They see Nathan’s desire to play out scenarios before they happen as an oddity. It’s just another element that makes Nathan Fielder so delightfully funny and out there. And yes, the show is shocking in just how high budget it manages to be in its attempts to play out scenarios before they happen, but the actual desire to do so– that isn’t weird at all.
For many of us, especially, I suspect, those of us who are not neurotypical, the act of replaying scenarios before or after they happen is not revolutionary, it’s just a normal part of life. When there is something stressful looming on the horizon, I sit up at night and play out exactly how it will go, modifying my responses to their imagined questions when things don’t go to plan. Even if there is something wonderful ahead (the start of college, parenthood) I daydream it all in my mind beforehand, knowing that it will not go exactly that way but also wanting to be as prepared as possible.
In the aftermath, too, I want to replay scenarios and see where things could have gone better. Many of us are no stranger to thinking of the perfect comeback once we’re safely back at home, but going deeper than that is not that strange either. Nathan opted to replay much of his parenting scenario after he genuinely hurt a child involved. When I have an awkward interaction that left me or someone else feeling emotionally harmed, I too replay it and figure out exactly how it could have gone better.
What Fielder did with The Rehearsal was not invent a sort of legendary new concept, but instead show neurotypical people what it’s like to live inside a hyperactive brain. That, I would argue, is the entire point of the show. The most shocked responses were from people who are blessed with a mind that rarely overthinks, preferring to live entirely in the moment. I should note here that I believe more of the show is acted than we are aware of. Part of the genius of Fielder is living in that uncertainty, yes, but I think it’s far more uncertain if we accept that what is happening is a normal occurrence inside of people’s heads, and therefore the show most likely takes place there as well.
The voiceover that we hear is just Nathan’s internal monologue. The scenes are 100% acting. What they’re acting is the exact scenario that Nathan plays out in his head while trying to fall asleep at night. This show isn’t a psychological experiment for recreating scenarios and the impacts that will have on children, but instead a slice capture of what it’s like to be inside of Nathan’s brain. It’s taking us on the path of his thoughts, which first starts out at wanting to practice parenthood, and along the way worries that he has damaged his practice child. So we go back and live that out, forcing it to come to completion before we can move forward.
The Rehearsal isn’t an entirely new concept, it’s just new that neurotypical people are seeing it play out.