Slowly at first and then all of a sudden: that’s how everyone came to love Nathan Fielder. Nathan For You arrived on the TV scene without much fanfare and it wasn’t until Dumb Starbucks graced our screens that suddenly everyone seemed to be watching. In its third season, the show shows no signs of losing momentum. But what makes Nathan For You so engaging?
The common consensus among critics is that Nathan Fielder’s persona is a magnified version of himself that plays up his innate social awkwardness. But there’s something more specific that makes him resonate: his persona is a parody of the idealized American businessman. Where Don Draper is the sum of our collective cultural imagination, Fielder is like someone who watched the first three seasons of Mad Men and decided he wanted to be just like Don but can never quite pull it off.
Both Mad Men and Nathan For You explore the disparity between who we actually are and how we present ourselves. In Mad Men, it’s Don Draper’s fake identity. In Nathan For You, it’s a guy who graduated from business school with “really good grades” (which we know were mediocre at best), whose ridiculous ideas sound promising only because of the airs he puts on. We know he’s a fraud, just like we know Don is a fraud. We’re in on the joke.
But Nathan’s ideas are never malicious. It’s his sincere desire to see the good in even the most bizarre people that draws us to the character. When J.J., the drunk bro who has foursomes with his brother, falls for the antique shop set-up and loses $280, Nathan admits that he feels bad about taking advantage of him. When he takes a Best Buy employee on a date to try to get her to divulge company secrets, he feels guilty for deceiving her. These moments are more frequent and pronounced in season three, and they reflect something bigger about Nathan: his empathy makes him a bad businessman.
Yet despite Nathan’s empathy and purported earnestness, much of his strategy relies on manipulating and gaslighting others. In an attempt to profit off of the young soccer player Sasha, he convinces his old friend (everyone’s favorite Santa) James Bailey to dissuade the boy from pursuing his dream of becoming an astronaut by making up elaborate lies about astronaut discrimination. He has no qualms about ruining a child’s dreams just for the opportunity to make some money; it’s the ultimate corporate caricature.
In “The Movement,” which is possibly this season’s most overt corporate critique, Nathan shows us how nefarious profit-driven culture can be. He convinces City of Angels, a moving company, that they can easily get free labor by tricking people into thinking they’ve joined an exercise movement when in reality they are just moving boxes and furniture. He even manages to find the most ridiculous spokesperson possible in Jack Garborino, who is basically the aging muscle man version of John Waters.
It’s easy to dismiss the whole episode as a stunt because of its ridiculousness—from the imaginative Craigslist ghostwriter to spokesperson Jack, who is so willing to put his name on the product. Throughout the entire episode, we are aware of the absurd logic behind the whole scheme. But when media outlets convince people to buy into it (just like season one’s petting zoo rescue and season two’s “Dumb Starbucks”), we don’t feel like we’ve been duped; we feel like a veil has been lifted. Nathan forces us to question how much we trust the media. (It’s not even outlandish; the entire campaign is reminiscent of the McDonald’s marketing effort to convince people to lose weight by eating at their restaurants.)
“The Movement” ends on a particularly damning note when David Sassounian, owner of the City of Angels moving company, realizes how far Nathan’s taken his plan. “Any time you need new movers, Jack can go on the news, lie to everyone in America, and you’ll get a fresh batch of people willing to move houses for free,” says Nathan. Jack, The Movement’s spokesperson, nods in agreement even though his face clearly indicates his discomfort. Despite knowing there’s something wrong about what they did, the plan worked, and David is too hesitant to tell Nathan he’s wrong. As Nathan leaves, he tells us without a hint of regret, “I was happy that David now had the free labor he’d always wanted.”
In these episodes, Nathan is at peak Don Draper. Rather than poking fun at viral gimmicks and branding as previous seasons did (with the exception of the Summit Ice jackets), season three takes a darker direction and aims to dismantle the social contracts between business and consumer.
In the season premiere, Nathan helps a local television store by pricing their TVs at $1 and forcing Best Buy to price match their stock so the smaller store can buy it out. When they refuse, Nathan calls them out for not complying with the contract they created and sues them. These loopholes are an integral part of the show because they make fun of the way that corporations use tax and legal loopholes to increase profit. Much of the show’s humor comes from Nathan convincing small businesses to act more like the corporations they struggle to compete against.
In “Smokers Allowed,” Nathan takes this premise to a new level. He convinces a bar owner to turn her bar into an immersive theatrical experience because of a loophole that allows theatrical performers to smoke indoors during performances. The argument becomes airtight as he even invites guests to come see the “play.” After a successful night, he decides to recreate the play using actors, and it’s at this point that the episode transcends any kind of synopsis.
Nathan’s devotion to the play becomes sociopathic, as hilarious as it is disturbing. He replaces the bartender with an actress because her performance seems more authentic. He asks another actress to repeatedly say “I love you” to him until it feels realistic enough (and forces an actor to watch the entire exchange). As he prompts the actress to say the phrase over and over, Nathan starts to tear up. He truly believes she loves him even though he knows she’s acting.
When he finds out the bartender didn’t like his play, a heartbroken Nathan tracks down the actress who replaced the bartender in his recreation and asks her if she liked it. When she responds “I loved it,” he asks her to say it again. They continue going back and forth, just as Nathan did earlier in the episode, and this time we hear his narration. “I knew this wasn’t real but her looking at me in the eyes and saying these words was strangely satisfying,” he explains. “They say reality is what you make of it, so in a world that’s cruel and hurtful who’s to say mine can’t be nice?”
It’s this final moment of “Smokers Allowed” that’s the most profound of the entire series. Nathan shows us that false words and promises can still create meaning. Despite the show’s critique of the false realities created by marketing and corporate culture, Nathan finds comfort in constructing his own false reality, as Don Draper did for so many seasons. For the first time, we see why Nathan is who he is, and we see the difference between who he is and who he appears to be.
Olga Lexell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Daily Dot, Splitsider and Reductress. You can find her jokes on Twitter.