Review: In ‘The Rehearsal,’ All the World Is Staged

Life, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, can be understood only backward, but it must be lived forward.

Nathan Fielder thinks he’s found a workaround for that.

In the uncomfortably funny, sneakily poignant and conceptually bananas “The Rehearsal,” Fielder goes to audacious lengths to prove that life can be lived backward. Or at least, it can be repeatedly rewound, through meticulous simulations that allow his subjects to prepare for life’s challenges by practicing them, on elaborate sets, with trained actors.

Messing in other people’s lives is Fielder’s comedic stock-in-trade. On Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You,” he posed as a consultant pitching far-fetched ideas, like offering a gas station rebate that sent customers on an exhausting quest or convincing a dodgy professional Santa Claus to ply his trade in the summer. Over time, the show expanded to overhaul clients’ lives, as when Fielder turned an average man into a hero by impersonating him and doing a high-wire walk between two seven-story buildings.

“The Rehearsal,” which begins Friday on HBO, starts big and gets both bigger and deeper. For his first project, Fielder places a Craigslist ad (“TV Opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding?”) and meets Kor, a Brooklyn teacher and trivia buff, who is agonizing about having misrepresented his educational background to his quiz team.

Fielder offers to help Kor practice coming clean to a teammate, a process that involves building a full-scale replica of their favorite bar, diagraming every possible interaction on flow charts and hiring an actress to stalk the teammate and learn her mannerisms. But there’s more: Fielder has prepared for meeting Kor by building a precise replica of his apartment and pre-gaming their first conversation with the help of another actor.

It’s simulacra all the way down, and “The Rehearsal” gets only more dizzyingly complex. The first episode is dryly funny in the style of “Nathan for You,” seeming to set up a similar case-of-the-week structure. But Episode 2 introduces a serial story line.

Fielder meets Angela, a fervent Christian who is considering having children. So he gives her a “son” by moving her to a house in Oregon and hiring a series of child actors, swapped out on a regular basis, to simulate raising a baby to adulthood in the span of two months.

It’s a monster of a project, and monsters grow and mutate. Fielder becomes more involved (in ways HBO would rather keep secret), and as the difficulty of controlling every aspect of a faux life becomes clearer, the hall of mirrors adds on wings. Fielder starts a class to train potential actors in “the Fielder Method,” then, wondering whether his teaching is effective, restages the class with him playing one of his students. This eventually leads to Fielder learning his own impersonation method from an actor impersonating him. (“He didn’t seem like he had ever taught an acting class before.”)

What starts as a life-hacking satire becomes a reality-comedy “Inception.” As on “Nathan for You,” the ultimate subject is: Who is this guy? What does he want? What drives somebody to want to science the uncertainty out of messy social existence?

Fielder — at least the cringey, energy-vampire version of himself he portrays onscreen — explains it as a struggle with social anxiety: “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that.” Kor comes up with a livelier analogy, likening Fielder to Willy Wonka, meaning to compliment him as a “dream maker.”

“But kids died in the factory?” Fielder asks.

Willy Wonka might have countered that you’ve got to break a few chocolate eggs to make an omelet. There has always been a productive vagueness at the core of Fielder’s comic personality (and also of his actual personality, a recent New York magazine profile suggests). Seen one way, the onscreen Fielder is a deadpan mischief maker; seen another, he’s a melancholy nerd; and yet another, he’s a mad social scientist, a manipulator trying to create private worlds where he’s utterly in control.

Many of the laughs in “The Rehearsal” come from its sheer visual ludicrousness. The production team creates a “farm” by sowing a field with store-bought vegetables that Angela harvests; Fielder escapes the blues by drowning his sorrows at his fake bar.

And as in “Nathan for You,” there’s often a fine line as to who’s the butt of the joke. Fielder meta-anticipates this issue, rehearsing a possible argument with Angela with an actress, who demands: “Am I the silly part that you talk about? Is my life the joke?”

In a way, “The Rehearsal” belongs less to the genre of docu-comedy (like “How To With John Wilson,” which Fielder produces) and more to the recent TV fantasies, like “Russian Doll” and “Undone,” about alternative timelines and the danger of trying to correct the past. Fielder, trying to tame reality through stagecraft, is like a comic version of the tech mogul in Alex Garland’s “Devs,” who builds a supercomputer to explore the forking paths of parallel realities. He’s playing the fool, and he’s playing God.

“The Rehearsal” (of which I’ve seen five episodes out of six) is entertaining but also disorienting. You are constantly gauging which sentiments are genuine, which emotions are more real than others, which scenes to invest in. Repeatedly, Fielder pulls a rug out from under you, and underneath it there’s another rug, held by another Fielder, who pulls that one out, too.

But the show has a philosophical core: Is it ever possible to truly understand another person? And there’s a tender, even beautiful side to its surreal moments. In particular — especially for those of us who have kids about to reach the end of our own experiment and leave the nest — there’s its “Boyhood”-like device of time-lapsing a childhood, which mimics the experience of turning around and seeing that your own child has suddenly grown into a different person.

At one troublesome point while Angela is raising her “child,” Fielder decides to rewind the experiment, bringing in a younger actor. In a single clever shot, we see a moody adolescent turn back into a sweet young kid.

It’s just goofy TV magic, of course. But it has a little poignancy for the rest of us, whether parents or just former kids, who must try to get our own lives right in a single take.

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