Commentary

In recent years, many TV comedies have challenged the confines of the genre: “BoJack Horseman” is hilarious but soul-crushing; stretches of “Atlanta” and “Barry” don’t feature any “jokes”; “Ted Lasso” will forsake a laugh for a heartwarming lesson.

But few shows have reconsidered what it means to be a comedy quite like “The Rehearsal,” cringe comedian Nathan Fielder’s latest documentary-style series, which debuted on HBO July 15. The socially awkward show feels particularly timely as we continue to readjust to life in the wake of the pandemic.

In “The Rehearsal,” Fielder (“Nathan For You”) helps real people reduce the uncertainties of everyday life by practicing upcoming life events: confrontations over a relative’s estate, raising a child, admitting a lie. These scripted scenes feature look-alike actors and take place on a soundstage meticulously re-created to imitate where the big moments will take place in real life.

In the show’s pilot episode, “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” Fielder helps Brooklynite Kor Skeete confess to his trivia teammate, Tricia, that he lied about having a master’s degree. Over several days, Fielder, Skeete and an actor playing Tricia simulate the trivia night when Skeete will admit his lie to the real Tricia.

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Fielder, labeled “cruel and arrogant” last month by The New Yorker, establishes the show’s bizarre conceit quickly, clearly and as a matter of fact. And on one hand, it’s hysterical. Particularly sidesplitting moments include the revelation that Fielder rehearsed his first meeting with Skeete, complete with an awkward icebreaker, and a montage wherein Fielder subtly feeds upcoming trivia answers to an oblivious Skeete as they walk through New York. (Posing as a blogger, Fielder pried the answers out of the trivia host.)

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Toward the end of the episode, though, Fielder confesses his anxiety about how people react to his deceptions, and he practices absolution of his own. When he admits to making Skeete cheat at trivia, an actor portraying Skeete tells Fielder he’s “an awful, awful person.” Other participants on the show come to outwardly detest the show’s host.

The ensuing episodes of “The Rehearsal” have eschewed the comedic high points of the pilot, focusing instead on Fielder’s own neurosis and the reasons why he wants to have artificial control over his life.

In the second episode, Fielder “helps” an Oregon woman prepare to have and raise a child. After encouraging the conspiracy theorist Christian to find a rehearsal partner, always-prodding Fielder drives the man away and inserts himself into the fake family. Despite a downtick in laughs, “The Rehearsal” remains fascinating and thought-provoking, and Fielder’s blur of comedy and documentary is endlessly compelling.

The uneasiness of “The Rehearsal” makes it uniquely relatable in the wake of the pandemic. After months of social distancing and isolation, many found their first forays back into social life a little uncomfortable and exhausting. Even today, I can handle one night of interactions, but a weekend can become overwhelming.

And who hasn’t replayed an argument in their mind, wishing they’d said or did something differently. A social miscue or poor interaction will linger in your brain for hours, days or years.

The idea for “The Rehearsal” emerged while Fielder was working on his Comedy Central series, “Nathan For You,” which concluded in 2017. In that show, Fielder attempted to “help” struggling businesses with unorthodox ideas. Fielder would try to anticipate how the owners would react to his bizarre suggestions. Usually, he was completely wrong. (Of course he was: His ideas included a feces-flavored frozen yogurt and a hot dog stand that allows customers to cut the line if they promise they have a doctor’s appointment.)

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Anticipating outcomes and rehearsing for real life seems outlandish. But in the age of social media, there are more parallels to the show. How long do people spend rewriting and perfecting their tweets and texts? Beyond that, most people present a glamorized version of their lives online, and instead of listening, empathizing and engaging in conversations, people leap to confrontations, trying to publicly obliterate anyone who disagrees with them.

The first three episodes of “The Rehearsal” don’t address these parallels overtly. Fielder uses the bizarre premise and his exaggerated comedic character to raise questions about authenticity and self-deception rather than answer them.

It often seems like people don’t know how to act these days. No wonder they’re accepting Fielder’s “help” practicing.

The laughs on “The Rehearsal” are not as bellyaching or constant; it can make for uncomfortable viewing. But the show’s trust in its audience to challenge itself and consider these themes makes it feel even more groundbreaking. 

“The Rehearsal”

New episodes of “The Rehearsal” air at 8 p.m. Fridays on HBO and HBO Max.

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