Nathan Fielder’s Strange Simulation is Uncomfortably Funny
On Exactitude in Science, an old Jorge Luis Borges story, described a map of an Empire that became so meticulously real that its cartographers essentially replicated the very Empire they were mapping. Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland) actually wrote something which precedes this by 50 years, with his 1893 novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, in which one character exclaims, “And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!” The character confesses that they don’t use the map, though: “We now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
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The idea of a simulation becoming just as real as what it simulates has fascinated people for a while, especially as technology increases at exponential rates and the concepts of sentient artificial intelligence and simulation theory become increasingly popular. What happens when ‘the real’ itself often pales in comparison to the digital and virtual worlds we inhabit everyday online and through media? Does reality feel less real? Or perhaps ‘hyperreal?’ While not explicitly philosophical, HBO’s fantastic new show The Rehearsal draws a lot of its bizarre, disorienting giddiness from these themes, delivering something extremely unique as a result.
Nathan Fielder Moves to HBO
Nathan Fielder, the Canadian comedian behind Nathan For You, is practically a performance artist at this point. He’s done some wild things — from creating a very literal coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks (operating under parody laws) which gave away coffee and pastries, to fabricating a whole film set with a Johnny Depp impersonator around a souvenir shop to lure in customers under the false promise that they’d appear in a movie. That show was on Comedy Central, which is always a good platform, but now Fielder is moving to premium television. He has an upcoming series with Emma Stone and the Safdie brothers called The Curse on Showtime, but before that hits, HBO has his weird and staggeringly distinct series The Rehearsal.
Related: Nathan Fielder Talks Nathan for You Premiere [Exclusive]
HBO obviously provides a much bigger budget and is arguably the best place for artists to make great television outside of streaming, and The Rehearsal does not fail to deliver the promise of an upgraded Fielder. It’s such a strange show, simultaneously small with low stakes, but done in a ridiculously epic and dramatic way. Like Nathan For You, it follows Fielder as he attempts to ‘help’ people with varying problems, often resorting to extremely over-the-top methods to do so.
Fielder Stages Situations in The Rehearsal
The Rehearsal begins with one man, Core Skeet (it’s uncertain if Fielder is using real names; he never strictly adheres to the reality principle). Skeet has told a white lie to his long-time trivia group, and for many years has let them believe that he has a Master’s Degree, when he only has a Bachelor’s. Skeet sends a video response to Fielder’s cryptic, anonymous Craigslist posting (“TV Opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding? Submit video.”), and Fielder gets in touch several weeks later, hoping to help him deal with the small lie.
In the meantime, Fielder sent a group of people to his apartment pretending to be checking the building for a gas leak; with Skeet distracted, they made a digital 3-D scan of his entire apartment, and then reconstructed it in a massive warehouse. Before contacting Skeet, Fielder hired an actor to play him, and the two rehearsed various situations in the fully reconstructed apartment. He brings Skeet into the warehouse, where they build an exact replica of the bar where his trivia night takes place, and hires an actor to play one of the friends he’s afraid to confess his lie to (and casts many extras to fill the fake bar). They run through scenario after scenario, developing an ostensible playbook on how to deal with one moment of his life.
Fielder gets increasingly involved with the smallest details, remaking and organizing a whole new reality in the process through Skeet’s rehearsals. In a way, it’s almost as of the great Charlie Kaufman movie Synecdoche; New York has been remade as a comedy documentary, and yes, it’s as unconventional as that sounds. While Fielder matches the monumental scope and weirdness of Kaufman’s masterpiece, it’s really the smallness of the situation (confessing a white lie to a friend) contrasted with the grandiose presentation (simulating everything and rehearsing it for hours on end) that’s the incongruous key to both the hilarity and awkwardness of The Rehearsal.
The Strange Simulation of The Rehearsal
“The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction,” Jean Baudrillard writes in Simulation, qualifying that, “The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is, the hyperreal […] which is entirely simulation.” Baudrillard’s ideas about simulation have a lot in common with the aforementioned Borges and Carroll stories, but updates it to the modern era (there’s a reason his book appears and is quoted in The Matrix, and Fielder’s new series The Rehearsal puts a comic spin on Baudrillard’s prescient philosophy of the simulacrum.
A simulacrum is a copy of a copy of a copy, to the point at which the imitation is indistinguishable from the reality. It’s not really a coincidence that trashy reality television really took off at the same time that accessible public internet did, and only became more prevalent as social media increased. Everyone is living inside a simulacrum these days.
The Rehearsal (and Fielder’s life, really) is trapped in this simulacrum, but throws one hell of a party in its own prison. It’s a delightful, funny, ambitious, and occasionally disturbing show about simulations and television itself, which will likely get increasingly unsettling throughout its run (the next episode features real babies, having a fundamentalist Christian woman rehearse what motherhood is like).
The Awkward Humanity of Nathan Fielder
Fielder never forgets the humanity at the ‘core’ of his meta experiments, though, and while some people find his uncomfortable humor a bit mean-spirited, it actually seems to build a bridge between the artifice and fakery of reality television and the very real loneliness, anxiety, and awkwardness inherent in being human. John Wilson did something similar in his HBO series, the innovative How To With John Wilson, which Fielder actually produces. They share an affinity for the unpolished, bumbling eccentricities of actual humanity, something also seen in the funny and sincere Joe Pera Talks With You.
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Fielder himself often remains an enigma. He brings his odd vision to the masses and invites participation with the spectacles he creates, but is often portrayed as sad and riddled with anxiety himself. Whether this is an Andy Kaufman-style act or an actual part of his personality is hard to tell, especially when he shines a light on it himself (“I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable,” he says at the beginning of The Rehearsal).
For instance, when he goes to apologize to one of his subjects in the ‘Dumb Starbucks’ episode of Nathan For You, the man tells him, “You’re not my friend. My friends don’t hire lawyers to sign contracts. My friends don’t have cameras, and lights, and lawyers, and producers. That’s not how you establish a friendship.” Fielder seems to actually be hurt here, and frequently comes across as a man trying to help and befriend others the only way he knows how — through the fake simulations of television. Maybe there’s nothing beneath the mask, and the only way to communicate these days is through our mutual artificiality.
The Future of The Rehearsal
It seems that The Rehearsal might actually delve deeper into Fielder himself, though; as the press release states in a very Baudrillardian way, “The Rehearsal stars Fielder as a man who questions how much of his life is written for himself. He’ll utilize a group of artists and other professionals to help him manufacture a life, so he can ‘rehearse’ key moments.” Moving closer to Fielder would be a good thing; he’s a fascinating person and artist, and the structure of the show doesn’t seem endlessly sustainable if he’s just recreating difficult situations for different people.
It remains to be seen where The Rehearsal will go from here. Nonetheless, it works splendidly so far, and if the brilliant finale of Nathan For You is any indication, Fielder knows entirely what he’s doing. He’s drawing a meaningful map of the human condition, a map that looks just like himself. The Rehearsal airs Friday nights at 11pm EST on HBO, and is available to stream on HBO Max.