A certain video by the comedian Nathan Fielder has never failed to make me laugh. In it, he’s dressed as a pharmacist and prepares a prescription—except instead of pills, he’s using raisins. The joke is nonsensical and immediately obvious, but it keeps going: Fielder carefully measures out the dosage, packs the bottle of raisins into a paper bag, says, “Here you are, ma’am,” while dropping the bag to no one in particular, and then solemnly returns the original box of raisins to a shelf. It’s the kind of bit that runs just long enough to make you question why he’s doing this—and by extension, why you’re still watching.
It also serves as a good litmus test for how much Fielder you can handle; he’s a comedian whose shtick you either get right away or never will. Best known for the docu-comedy series Nathan for You, in which he came up with preposterous ideas to save struggling small businesses, Fielder has perfected an onscreen persona as a highly committed, painfully deadpan, near-sociopathic-but-maybe-just-dumb genius. Pushing any situation into its most awkward territory is his superpower. Take the raisins, for instance: The fact that raisins can resemble pills isn’t that funny, but he’s so devoted to filling out the prescription, the absurdity takes over. He looks like he believes that this is his job.
The Rehearsal, Fielder’s first starring project in five years, pushes his signature commitment to the extreme. The HBO series features Fielder as the director of “rehearsals,” elaborately staged scenarios re-creating parts of ordinary people’s lives that are meant to help them prepare for something: maybe a confession they must make to a close friend, or what a difficult life choice might look like once they embark on it. Each episode shows the trippy work that goes into playing such intense pretend. (You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a scene from Synecdoche, New York.) But these expensive endeavors alone don’t make The Rehearsal the strangest “comedy” airing on TV. The show is at odds with its mastermind. In Nathan for You, Fielder was in total control, a troll who got people to follow along with his outlandish ideas by playing the part of a successful business consultant. In The Rehearsal, Fielder only thinks he is. He’s perplexed by his own efforts, more of an observer than a true adviser. And as the show goes on, it interrogates what Fielder wants out of all these nonsensical practice sessions. Are they about the ease of deceiving others, or about deceiving himself?
That question drives the show’s tension. Throughout The Rehearsal, the most remarkable scenes involve Fielder becoming the victim of his own schemes, pushing back against the rules he’d established. Consider the closing moments of the first episode, which aired Friday: Fielder has just completed a rehearsal with his subject, a man named Core, but he’d lied to Core to pull it off and now wants to admit to the lie. Fielder goes through his own rehearsal of the confession with an actor stand-in. The scene cuts to Fielder talking to the real Core, except this time, Fielder doesn’t reveal a thing.
The moment is fascinatingly meta: It’s unclear whether he chickened out, or ever meant to tell Core the truth. Fielder has a hand in everything about the show; he provides the voice-over narration, directs the episodes, and constructs the scenarios. By including a scene that acknowledges the deception that he ultimately doesn’t divulge to Core, Fielder seems to be offering commentary about himself without saying a single word. Perhaps he wants viewers to question his aims. Perhaps he’s showing that he understands the artifice of his setup. Or perhaps he feels guilty about his devious method of comedy.
Again and again, a subtle, silent conflict between the Fielder onscreen and the Fielder behind the camera seems to arise. These moments mark a shift in Fielder’s work, which had previously treated TV Fielder as a fictional character, exaggerating his need to connect with the people he meets and ignoring how bizarre he could be. Fielder would occasionally blur the lines on Nathan for You, but he tended to maintain a strict boundary between his real self and his act. Now, by including scenes like the ones with Core, he’s directly contending with how TV Fielder is perceived.
If all of this sounds more headache-inducing than humorous, don’t worry: Plenty of pleasure can be derived from simply watching The Rehearsal as one big social experiment conducted by a perfectionist with an impossibly large budget, courtesy of HBO. The editing is fastidious, much as in Nathan for You and How to With John Wilson (which Fielder produces), often underscoring a joke by zooming in on an amusing detail or cutting to the comedian’s reaction at just the right moment. Fielder still likes discomfiting his subjects—who for the most part clearly consider these rehearsals ridiculous. And his crew’s creations are remarkable: For the rehearsals, they construct a replica of a Brooklyn bar, produce a fake winter around a rural Oregon home, and even cast a series of child actors so that a woman can simulate raising a son from infancy to teenagehood. Through it all, you’re not entirely sure of what you’re seeing, but what you’re seeing is so oddly addictive, you can’t help but continue looking.
Just as Nathan for You once did, The Rehearsal has already drawn criticism for the way Fielder seems to seek out and exploit only oddball characters for his comedy, belittling the people he’s saying he’s trying to help. But that’s a willful misread of the show. Fielder, after all, is the true butt of the joke, the one person onscreen who seems incapable of accepting that no rehearsal of life can match the real thing. The show explores, at its creator’s expense, the futility of practice. It exposes how no amount of painstaking control can force reality to bend to anyone’s will—perhaps Fielder’s least of all.