By the end of Nathan Fielder’s landmark show Nathan For You, you got the sense the show was outgrowing its own premise. The series saw small-fry business owners sign up for increasingly insane business makeovers in a parody of the mindset that failing enterprises can find success with counterintuitive, out-of-the-box thinking, revealing in the process a society desperate to try anything for success. But as the series approached its end, it pivoted to featuring offbeat but piercing introspections into our shared human willingness to perform for validation, even if the very idea of performance remained terrifying.
In “The Anecdote,” Nathan coins an outlandish anecdote for a late night show and then reverse-engineers the unlikely tale into existence, so scared is he to be caught lying for attention. In “Smokers Allowed,” Nathan installs a two-seat theater in a dive bar as a legal loophole to allow smoking indoors, and a decision to perfectly replicate a night of drinking leads him to him requesting an actor confess her love for him over and over again. Such a trend continues in Fielder’s follow-up, The Rehearsal, where he allows people who feel ill-prepared for big changes the opportunity to rehearse it in an exact simulacrum of their life. Within convoluted, ludicrous apparati, keen human insecurities are revealed.
Nathan Fielder seems more interested this time round in featuring a protagonist in his show. Undeniably, a fictive character of “Nathan” has taken a defined shape; we see a socially inept but curious man who craves meaningful interpersonal relationships, but whose attempts to achieve them are all from a firmly distanced position. This character “Nathan” tries to make sense of his social identity through the controlled resources of an HBO show: countless extras and runners, a perfect facsimile of a New York bar, and all the baby actors Oregon can legally supply.
Fans have speculated that each episode of The Rehearsal focuses on an insecurity that Nathan himself shares with his participant; a fear of being a fraud, making emotional connections, or being an inadequate parent. Nathan himself, therefore, will be the one healing throughout the series, exposing himself to situations that are terrifying, but controlled, in order to abate his asphyxiating anxieties—and there’s psychoanalytical precedent for such a process. But it doesn’t take a clinical psychologist to tell The Rehearsal is not an effective way to deal with anxiety. It’s clear in the climax of the first episode, “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” when trivia enthusiast Kor finally confesses his educational history to a friend. The ease at which the friend receives and accepts Kor’s secret clearly undermines how necessary the past forty minutes of rehearsals were for facilitating Kor’s big revelation, and how they only delayed meaningful human connection.
On a metaphorical level, Nathan offers his participants a grand performance of anxiety itself; the ceaseless thinking through of every contingent and possibility around a scary event mirrors how the anxious thinker unhealthily tries to prepare for every bad outcome, over and over again—regardless of the illogic behind their catastrophizing. But when Nathan himself makes a leap at the end of the second episode into the apparatus of the show itself, he doesn’t acknowledge the impossibility at the heart of his quest: that attempting to disprove our insecurities won’t rid us of them. Submerging yourself in a construct of your anxiety won’t alleviate those fears; it just reaffirms these are things worth worrying about. The world Nathan builds will not cure him, as you cannot separate The Rehearsal from the anxiety that constructed it. There is no version of reality we can create that isn’t tinged with our own psychology.
When Nathan For You found me, I was not in a good place. Starting the third year of my undergrad degree and the second year of an OCD and anxiety disorder diagnosis, I made no alterations to my social schedule or alcohol intake to account for my worsening mental state. The result was a perpetual state of burnout and terror, using every social interaction as an opportunity to suss whether or not everyone around me—be they acquaintance or best friend—hated my guts. It was in this state of paranoia I discovered Fielder’s show, and its deadpan, cringe-inducing absurdity was so exactly my sense of humor that I started sharing it with my closest circle as if it were some extension, or representation, of myself.
In some ways, it felt healing to act like Nathan For You was a part of me, maybe even the best parts of me. Watching it with friends would provoke the delirious laughter I was often too exhausted and tightly wound to experience. But often it would feel isolating. After a late-night hookup, I showed the person I had just slept with “The Movement,” an episode where Nathan invents a box-moving fitness trend to give a moving company free labor, and their palpable confusion at how funny I found the show just compounded the isolation I was finding from many social interactions.
Everything peaked with Nathan’s final episode. “Finding Frances” is a feature-length odyssey following an elderly bit-player first introduced two seasons prior as he tries to reconnect with a lost love he hasn’t seen for decades. I watched half of the episode before I was pushed into attending a social held by our theater society, which were parties that always required more performing than we ever did on stage. On returning home, and reaching the episode’s inevitably heartbreaking climax, I found myself in floods of tears. On the funniest show I had ever watched, I had been blindsided by it concluding with lonely, aching human pain. Nathan had spent four seasons practicsing awkward responses to regular people being weird, and it was tremendously moving watching him react to someone baring their soul.
Exposure therapy has had a troubling impact on me. While it initially helped to hear my darkest, most overwhelming thoughts in a context other than my own head, I only found it effective under the guidance and supervision of a trained professional who knew the line between therapeutic practice and self-inflicted punishment. Outside of our regular sessions, I’d make an effort to seek out anxiety-inducing material, engaging with films, theater, and writing that never hesitated to delve into the topics I’d find distressing. It’s okay, I’d think as my throat tightened, my stomach shrunk, You’re supposed to be exposing yourself to this. It’s how you heal.
The naive part of me thought it was possible that seeking out my triggers would lessen their impact. But the self-destructive part of me thought I deserved the distress that would face me every time. There was no medical oversight to my actions, no professional safeguarding or thought to my wellbeing. After emerging from a play about the aftershock of abuse (that I had attended alone and sat in the front row), I told a friend about how drawn I was to media I knew would wreak havoc with my mental state.
“It’s supposed to be like exposure therapy,” I said.
“It sounds like self-harm,” he replied.
For me, the emotional crux of The Rehearsal comes at the end of “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” when Nathan checks in with Kor after his confession. Nathan tells Kor he needs to confess something himself, and explains he rigged the quiz for him to win (Kor wasn’t going to make his confession if he was losing the quiz). After Nathan explains what he did, it’s revealed he’s talking to Kor’s actor double, who responds that he’s appalled at Nathan’s behavior, and calls him a truly awful person. We cut back to the real Kor: Nathan can’t stomach telling him what he told the double, so he settles for a vague compliment.
Nathan didn’t rehearse his confession to be more prepared for the response; he couldn’t even muster the courage to actually say it to Kor. He rehearsed it because he expected the horrified response, because his anxiety told him he deserved the worst possible outcome. Not only does Nathan see himself worthy of being damned, he will stage and orchestrate his own condemnation. He has made a show where he can confront himself with his worst fears, rather than the other way around.
The Rehearsal is the exercise of someone who thinks they’re conquering their anxiety, when in fact they’re only giving substance to previously abstract fears. With all his televisual resources, Nathan indulges in the anxieties that dominate him, in an experiment against social inadequacy that not only falsely claims to mimic real life, but pretends it offers its architect and participants control over the fears that rule them. When one subject ghosts Nathan at a carnival instead of following him deeper into the convoluted apparatus the comedian has built, as happens in “Gold Digger,” it’s clear Nathan has more difficulty severing himself from his artificial methodology than his subjects do, and The Rehearsal proves it’s more effective at raising barriers between us and the real world than preparing us for it.
Anxiety makes us disproportionately afraid of the world around us, the people who populate it, and our position alongside them. To me, exposure therapy is about making you taste the thing you’re afraid of, so you can think, Wait a minute, my worst fears aren’t instantly confirmed. It’s a way to lessen your fears, not legitimize them with the goal of preparing you for their unavoidable terror.
Nathan’s solution to his social insecurities is not to show how little control these fears have over us, but to provide methods to outsmart them. But anxiety can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be debated or convinced, and there’s no argument foolproof enough to cast them away. They hang from us persistently like Nathan’s laptop holder, tightening their grip the more we engage with them. To humor them like Nathan’s rehearsals do, we will always lose, because we are battling a version of ourselves who will stop at nothing to invalidate and terrorize us.
Fielder’s gift in The Rehearsal is a rehearsed, constructed version of himself, one who must embark on an anxiety-inducing journey into a delusion of self-improvement. Will you be cured, Nathan? Will you find yourself loved, will you end up alone? Can you make your peace with either certainty? We can only hope the fictional Nathan can outgrow the confines of his own show, just like the real-life Fielder outgrew the confines of the one before.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.