In HBO’s “The Rehearsal,” Nathan Fielder Recruits Ordinary People for an Unsettling Social Experiment

“TV OPPORTUNITY: Is There Something You’re Avoiding?”

The cultural footprint of Nathan Fielder, who embodied the misanthropic marketer protagonist in Comedy Central’s docu-reality saga Nathan for You, has only grown since the series’ 2018 close. Now, he’s back with the Oregon-filmed HBO show The Rehearsal, which hawks his daft visions without the shield of relative anonymity.

Compared with poo-flavored ice cream or Dumb Starbucks (two memorable Nathan for You gags), The Rehearsal’s central conceit—a Fielder-hosted program workshopping disputes in a replicated environment—seems harmless enough. Yet the show finds Fielder at his most transgressive, recruiting ordinary people to enact painful, real-life situations with the help of sets and actors.

In The Rehearsal, people respond to a generic online posting (“TV OPPORTUNITY: Is There Something You’re Avoiding?”) with their innermost fears and desires. This leads to devilishly bizarre circumstances, like an Oregon woman ranting about satanism and snarling that “not everything is make-believe” after Fielder takes a performer pretending to be her son trick-or-treating.

In another scene, Fielder helps a man rehearse an impassioned plea for inheritance funds disallowed by his brother, advising him to lower the volume and lessen the ethnic slurs—only to relent when the man argues that his dialogue will sound false without an undercurrent of casual anti-Semitism.

Behind that moment lies the haunting truth that undergirds The Rehearsal: These people aren’t idiots. They’re ordinary folks brimming with shameless confidence in their instincts, convinced that checking facts or mollifying behaviors are akin to a coward’s death.

By focusing on blithely delusional exemplars of blinkered egotism, Fielder neatly evades the unsavory optics of exploiting human prey for entertainment. Because he chooses his targets carefully, his efforts seem infinitely more romantic than they might have, even if they are invariably doomed.

Having the keys to the HBO vaults helped Fielder fund the show’s most spectacular sequences. On his command, teams duplicated a New York City sports bar down to its torn chairs and mishung artwork, encouraging precision in rehearsals of trivia-night confessions.

Eventually, the entire bar set was shipped cross-country to a Clackamas soundstage so that Fielder had somewhere to hang out. When he deemed the experience too lonely, producers arranged for a liquor license and an 80-foot corridor connecting the bar with exterior signage in hopes locals might find their way inside.

As the series has progressed, Fielder has exploited the network’s resources for more than just giggles. Case in point: voice-overs that bounce between sardonic and dopily portentous, turning harrowing amid orchestra swell and roving camerawork paced for maximum feels.

It’s enough to make you wonder: Are the show’s excesses an intentional broadening of scope or a wry commentary on how easily our emotional triggers can be manipulated? Are we meant to pan for meaning below the layered absurdities or question the meta-provocateur drolly exposing our susceptibility to prestige TV? Fielder constantly raises those questions, playing on your suspicion that you’re being pranked.

If any rules exist for the docutainment genre, it’s fairly obvious Fielder delights in subverting them (he’s never seemed especially precious about keeping things real). All the same, manipulating melancholia instead of laughs does make The Rehearsal feel different from Nathan for You. Comedy should serve no master beyond the joke itself, but heartstrings can’t be tugged in a vacuum.

The Rehearsal (which will debut its next episodes, “Apocalypto” and “Pretend Daddy,” on Aug. 12 and 19, respectively) features all the pitfalls that come with linking your art to someone else’s life. When the stars align, it offers moments of truth without any hint of theatricality, but it also reminds us that it’s trickier to whip up poignancy than laughs.

SEE IT: The Rehearsal streams on HBO Max.