Blind Spots: The Rehearsal

This surreal reality(ish) show defies easy categorization. And I mean that as a compliment.

I watch and consume a lot of media. That’s a double-edged sword for me: Often, I have seen the newest and buzziest thing, and I love being conversant in it and being able to tell someone “Yes, watch this” or “No, stay away.” But when it’s such a known trait that you always watch and see whatever’s out there, it comes as a surprise to some when you haven’t seen something.

Call them blind spots.

There are many, from movies to TV shows to podcasts to books, where if a friend were betting good money, they’d swear I’d already consumed it. But they’d be wrong.

I’m going to revisit the hype around certain media, and visit the act of consuming them for the first time, with hindsight being 20/20. Because at the end of the day, it’s silly to get worked up over the things we haven’t seen when the universe of films, for instance, is so vast. It’s not possible to have seen everything, so you just haven’t seen it yet.

TV makes this harder, because shows often live in the popular imagination in different ways than films. And the buzz is what’s fun about them (because it’s fun to experience the shows week to week). Obviously, streaming has changed all of that, but when the work stands the test of time, the entertainment value of watching isn’t affected. And there are still articles and podcasts out there that simulate the real-time conversations about a show, like a virtual water cooler around which we can all gather to say “Did you see that last night?”

The Rehearsal | HBO

I came to all things Nathan Fielder late. When I was living in Wyoming, my friend Jake introduced me to Nathan for You, which I still haven’t completed. Undoubtedly, I laughed my way through it, but something about the whole thing made me wonder if I’d ever revisit it, ever try to finish it, because despite the laughs, it really didn’t line up with my brand of humor all that well.

It was undeniably funny at times, but then there would be long stretches of interminable cringe, in a way that I don’t really want my TV watching time to include.

This seems a perfect description for how I’d come to feel about his latest endeavor, The Rehearsal on HBO. It was quite the buzz in certain circles, and after having watched it recently, I can see why.

Let’s see, what is the most succinct way to describe the show (after two episodes, I’d say, you’d sympathize with the task of summarizing it for someone, and even more so by the time you’ve watched all six): Fielder expands upon the conceit of Nathan for You (in which he advises businesses with hair-brained schemes that have their own weird logic but border on farce) by acknowledging a common truth: Certain conversations and interactions are difficult and fraught and scary. To help, he believes all a person need do is practice, over and over again, and to map out all potentialities. So he does provides a remarkable amount of time (and even more remarkable amount of HBO’s money) to preparing a man for a conversation with a trivia team partner to reveal a white lie that had gnawed at him for years now: He didn’t have a master’s degree like he said he did.

This is the first episode, and when it ends, you feel as if you know what the show will be: A story-of-the-week format that allows for more examples of what we’d just seen. And while the second episode starts out that way, the woman soon becomes the focal point of the whole show (along with Nathan himself). She’s practicing for what it would be like to have a child, and well, after that, everything gets weirder and weirder.

I honestly believe that to try to discuss the show, episode by episode, to recap what happened in each is to do a disservice to it, to water it down, to miss the point. I still don’t know exactly what Fielder wanted out of the show, or what it’s supposed to mean.

I can summarize it up this way though, in a few points:

1) It’s full of uncomfortable humor. If you like cringe comedy, you’ll love this show.

2) It’s like (but more complicated than) reality TV. If you love quirky characters, some of whom are so terrible and weird that you can’t help but root for them, you’ll love this show.

3) It’s a Rorschach test. Your takeaways and conclusions about characters, the meaning of the show, the ethics of the show, almost any aspect of it, is almost assuredly going to be different from another person’s. This is why I think the buzz was what it was when it aired: There was so much to talk about, so much to disagree about, so much to argue over.

4) It just might be legitimate genius. Depending on your grading rubric (which is to say, how much credit you want to extend to Fielder about what he’s doing), the show works with ideas in ways that few others ever would dare.

The highest compliment I can pay to it (and perhaps any piece of art?) is that I’m still thinking about it, weeks later, still just as unsure of what I watched as I was when I was watching it, still uncertain of just how funny it was (while knowing that, again, there were undeniably funny parts), still feeling cringe (perhaps at an even bigger level), and still not really feeling like it was for me.

This piece by Alissa Wilkinson processes a lot of these thoughts, seemingly in real time because she published before she’d seen the totality of the show, and she grapples with the “what-the-hell-is-this?” of it all.  And her listed possibilities are all convincing, which to me, points back to the genius of the overall project.

Four ways of looking at The Rehearsal
Nathan Fielder’s wild HBO show is reality TV at its most bizarre. Or is it a documentary? Or memoir? Or something else?

That being said, if this show sits in a blind spot for you as well, I’d encourage you to fix that. The only recommendation I can make is that you find someone with whom you enjoy discussing media and watch it together; this is absolutely a show that benefits from having someone to watch it with. Failing that, check out a podcast like this episode of The Prestige TV Podcast to feel in conversation with fellow viewers.

‘The Rehearsal’, Season 1 - The Prestige TV Podcast
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons is joined by Juliet Litman to discuss Nathan Fielder’s return to TV in HBO’s bizarre show ‘The Rehearsal’. Hosts: Bill Simmons and Juliet LitmanProducer: Kyle Crichton Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices