Everybody’s familiar with clickbait. It’s ubiquitous. But what about metaphysical clickbait: a show that endlessly comments on itself and asks you to do the same? This, to me, is an apt description of Nathan Fielder’s new show on HBO, The Rehearsal.
As with his previous show, Nathan for You, Fielder is ostensibly offering his services to others, in this case, people who want to rehearse a situation they have been avoiding with the goal of eliminating all uncertainty when the moment actually arrives. But Fielder’s most loyal customer turns out to be Fielder himself.
Since The Rehearsal has no linear progression nor clear forward motion, trying to analyze it seems like a fool’s errand. If the goal of the show is to make life look like a tawdry exercise, The Rehearsal succeeds. At least, it succeeds at undermining everything. Our belief in reality, even our belief in unreality. Archimedes famously said, “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.” There’s no place here on which to stand. No firm substance, no Plymouth Rock, nothing. Just people, the author of the series among them, doubting themselves and everyone else.
Documentary has morphed from reporting to a strange kind of psychological experimentation. We’re asked to examine human behavior in extremely unlikely situations. What will this person do if X, Y, and Z? In the old days, philosophers would, in addition to philosophizing, conduct various experiments. Pascal had his exploding barrel. Newton had his falling apple. Today, we have people such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Nathan Fielder asking questions like “What would people do if asked to become chairs, or to sit on people who have become chairs?”
The Rehearsal is an extended essay on reality and fantasy. I admire its ambition, even though I’m a little unsure what its ambition really is. A couple of the many questions it asks: What can we get people to do for reality television? What are the limits of tolerance? It’s clear that people have different limits of tolerance. Many will go along until the playacting violates some inherent belief that they have.
Take Angela, whose desire to rehearse having a family sets the whole series in motion. She goes along with the rehearsal but won’t compromise when it comes to her religious beliefs. That’s not just a pretend stance. Or is it? Is the whole point of this series to discover these breaking points? To manufacture them in lieu of discovery? Or is the point that the real world always undermines fantasy, that reality comes back to bite you in the ass? I have no idea.
In the old days, philosophers would conduct various experiments. Today, we have people such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Nathan Fielder asking questions like “What would people do if asked to become chairs, or to sit on people who have become chairs?”
The Rehearsal isn’t really a rehearsal at all. I think that’s one of the things that confuses me about the show. The premise that Fielder or anyone else is actually rehearsing is so thin that it’s impossible to take seriously, and that seems to be the first of infinitely many nested ironies. You’re asking people to imagine what their lives would be like if they had a child, if they confronted a friend or family member. People do that all the time. You ask them to construct something completely artificial that relates to their lives. Then you ask whether there’s any difference between the real and the artificial, between make-believe and reality.
There are some obvious impediments to playacting. What’s interesting about it is watching it all break down, as it inevitably does. It’s not clear, however, what it all breaks down into. Is it something any less real than anything else? I don’t know. There’s the comedy of the constraints of playacting under union regulations: switching children, silent parties, etc. There are the offhand moments that aren’t scripted. For example, my personal favorite, the shot of the adult actor who’s playing a six-year-old boy, out on a smoke break in wardrobe. But these moments aren’t departures from the narrative. They’re part of it. More accurately, these breaks in character fuel the narrative, subsume the narrative, perhaps were the narrative all along. There’s no such thing as a candid moment in this series. You can’t trust that anything is what it seems.
There’s a scene in the film noir Gun Crazy that I love, even though I’m not sure I interpret it correctly. Bart Tare (John Dall) is in love with guns. Returning home from reform school and the army, he goes target shooting with his old friends. There’s a bottle of beer sitting on a rock. At some point during the scene, he takes a swig from the bottle and says, “Ugh, warm beer.” The bottle had been sitting out on set for some undefined amount of time. I remember seeing it and thinking, Oh my God, this is a real moment in a fictional film.
Throughout The Rehearsal, I often found myself wondering whether Nathan is pretending not to understand. Is he intentionally obtuse or really obtuse? Is anything anything? I always wanted to write an essay called “Taking the Piss out of Epistemology”; this is putting the piss into epistemology. We’re endlessly trying to figure out what’s real and what’s artificial in all this playacting. And then there’s this horrible fear that we’re all doing a version of this in our own lives.
It reminds me of the Milgram experiment. (The actor H. Jon Benjamin made this comparison in a recent New York–magazine article about Fielder.) You have a bunch of people dressed in lab coats with clipboards, and subjects behind glass hooked up to electrodes. Some authority figure, perhaps the designer of the experiment, encourages one of the participants to administer stronger and stronger electric shocks to the supposed subject of the study. The person hooked up to electrodes screams in (simulated) pain, even begs that the experimenter relent.
The study was later written up in Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority, where he argues that you could command people to torture others successfully and with impunity. It became incredibly controversial—in part because what Milgram had done was seen to be immoral. Did he ask himself the question, What effect would this experiment have on the participants? Would people who thought they had administered more and more powerful electric shocks suffer consequences? Would it change how they saw themselves? Would it undermine their sense of being a decent human being?
If you want to moralize about the ethics of The Rehearsal, you most certainly can. But Fielder has beaten you to it. He moralizes for us. I’m not so interested in moralizing. At the heart of the series, for me, is this terrible uncertainty of what is real and what is pretend. Is it all acting, all posing? And what is real in this terrible mélange of the two that we call life? Despite Fielder’s effort to make everything fake, to make everything artificial, still, some reality remains. It is the opposite of what is expected. Reality intrudes in ways that are totally uncontrollable and uncomfortable.
Doubtlessly, there will be endless monographs. The Rehearsal cries out for them. But it is hard for me to engage in the discussion. It’s the mise en abyme, the picture within a picture. The self-reflexive nature of it all … There’s also the fear of looking like an idiot. I didn’t really want to write this essay. Just consider it a rehearsal for an essay I might write, if I were capable of it.
To hear Errol Morris reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL