Nathan Fielder's HBO series asks everyone — from the subjects, to the crew, to the viewers — to take these rehearsals seriously. And after just two episodes, it's clear we should.
[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Rehearsal” through Episode 2, “Scion.”]
As soon as Robbin walked up to Angela, alarm bells started ringing. It wasn’t that the bearded dude in ripped jeans and gold glasses gave off immediate “don’t date me” vibes — though those surfaced as fast and furious as his Scion TC at 100 miles per hour — it was that he came off as a “scripted partner.” After just two dates, one with a man too hesitant about Angela’s devout faith and another all too eager to share his ultimate fear, here comes Robbin with a cross prominently draped around his neck and “blessed” among the first [insert angel number here] words out of his mouth. Before he finishes his (complimentary) water, they’re high-fiving over his “miracle status” with a shared “amen!”
“Too good to be true” would be overstating things, since single people of faith can find their soulmate via many a Christian-exclusive dating app, but Robbin still felt suspiciously targeted to Angela’s piety. So… is he for real? As the rehearsal progresses, the audience is given reason upon reason to doubt Robbin’s legitimacy: as the right partner for Angela, or as a ringer to produce good TV. By the end, it’s clear he’s not the one. “Wasn’t cut out for it, I guess,” the local Oregonian (and definitive day owl) says to Nathan as Robbin walks out on his new family. But questions about his legitimacy as a real person lingered. Would Nathan bring in this guy just for the laughs? Would he push Robbin into a situation he obviously couldn’t handle, all for a better show? Would he, in essence, do what he did on “Nathan For You”?
An answer came late Friday night. “For anyone who still had any doubt that my brother is a dangerous psycho, please watch S1E2 of The Rehearsal,” a man claiming to be Robbin’s real-life brother posted to Twitter. The resulting comments and responses are worth sifting through, just as piecing together how Fielder & Co. pulled off “The Rehearsal” is an eye-opening endeavor. But as fun as a diversion as those questions create, the show doesn’t require outside information to round out its story.
That includes memories of “Nathan For You.” What we’ve seen on HBO is the work of a more focused, more mature storyteller than the provocateur behind Comedy Central’s cult classic. For as many jaw-dropping laughs as there are in “Scion,” Episode 2 isn’t built around making fun of anyone. Parts are hilarious, absolutely. Parts are curious, even moving. But it explains a truth about Robbin and, in turn, about Angela and even Nathan.
Where “Nathan For You” relished trapping its subjects in uncomfortable scenarios, “The Rehearsal” is committed to the rehearsal itself; so much so that Fielder makes sure to include and adapt to its shortcomings. Episode 2 emphasizes what this rehearsal demands in order to be worthwhile, and what “The Rehearsal” asks of its audience to find the same meaning. Namely, it asks everyone to forget what they think they know and take the experiment seriously — even when it’s very, very funny.
Am I Supposed to be Laughing? (Yes, Absolutely)
Episode 2 introduces Angela and her rehearsal in aptly grand fashion. But sans context, the scene is a lot to take in. Yes, this is the second episode of “The Rehearsal.” Yes, the premiere established that this show offers people a practice run at a looming uncertainty in their life. Yes, the dedication and expertise of the assisting production crew is unparalleled. But watching a baby get picked up out of its crib and passed out of a window without the parent’s knowledge is a pretty wild action to witness! It looks a lot like kidnapping, and that’s very much on purpose. After the title card drops, Nathan explains what’s going on via his calm, monotone narration:
“Most people say that nothing can prepare you for becoming a parent. But most people don’t have the resources to hire dozens of child actors to create an around-the-clock simulation of parenthood; to raise a child from zero to 18 [years old] over the course of two months, before deciding if you want to have one yourself.”
While it’s still odd to breathe a sigh of relief as another baby swap is carried out behind Angela’s back (this time, in a grocery store parking lot), that’s exactly the kind of paradoxical humor “The Rehearsal” thrives on: combining the logic of the experiment with its outrageous requirements. The joke here isn’t on anyone but Nathan and how out-there his experiment comes across. “Scion” soon embodies a similar balance of rationality and absurdity with its characters and story as much as its structure, as the partner Angela requires to rehearse her preferred child-raising scenario creates ridiculous complications.
Before getting in to the bong, the numbers, and the step-free roommate battle, it’s important to look at how Robbin is invited to join the rehearsal. Following their first date, Nathan notes his frustration with Angela in taking three days to decide if she should ask Robbin to be her co-parent. He starts to question if she’s invested in the rehearsal, or if “she just wanted a fun vacation in her dream home.” It’s then that he ups her responsibilities, first installing a crying robot baby (and the aforementioned local helper to set it off) and then reminding Angela it’s her responsibility to cover child care if she’s going to leave the baby home alone.
Angela doesn’t look great here (the reaction from the child actor’s mom, responding to a request to put lavender oil on her baby’s feet, says it all), but she’s far from an object of derision. Asking a stranger to move in with you is a big decision, even in the rehearsal’s sped up timeline. Arranging child care for a baby that’s not yours in a town you’re only visiting could also be pretty awkward (and not a task easily assumed when so much of her life is under Nathan’s direction). Even when she’s shown praying ahead of her third date with Robbin — whispering that God “lay [his] hand heavy upon this production, heavy upon Nathan” so they know the Lord is “guiding” this rehearsal, not the actual producers — it could be seen as a cry for help; that she feels forced to take actions she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t feel comfortable with, at the behest of the show.
Finding a Good Father, Even a Fake One, Is Hard
Then Robbin shows up, agrees to join in, and embarks on a fateful night with Nathan. Throughout the damning back-and-forth between the rehearsal house, Robbin’s apartment, and home again, Nathan positions himself as an evaluator and protector. “I tagged along to do my due diligence on behalf of the parents,” he says, before Robbin unveils mile after mile of flashing red warning signs. He holds his phone in one hand while driving, even though he can’t stop mentioning the car he totaled. He won’t stop listing prophetic numbers in his vehicle, but he doesn’t have the actual numbers needed to operate it. (“You don’t need a license plate to drive?”) He’s convinced “the door’s open” to having sex with Angela, even though she made a specific point to tell him premarital relations are off the table.
None of these choices, statements, or beliefs are evoked by Nathan. Sure, a few are driven by safety concerns — “I smoke and drive all the time” — but they’re still a reaction to behavior noticed by Nathan instead of actions instigated by him. As he’s always been able to do with the right people, Nathan just lets Robbin talk, and talk, and talk. Rather than pry out of Robbin the version he wants, he just lets the walking disaster reveal himself. Most importantly, the Robbin Nathan gets to know fully explains his exit later on. As a character, Robbin makes perfect sense to the audience, and he pushes the story forward. While anything can happen between edits, the point remains fixed: This guy isn’t father material, this guy isn’t partner material, this guy leaves in the middle of the night rather than do his fair share. If he won’t buy his own mayonnaise, why would he take care of his own kid?
Once Robbin leaves, Nathan tries to save the rehearsal by stepping in himself, but it’s far from a perfect solution. On one level, he has to fill in as Angela’s co-caregiver. Her rehearsal was designed with a partner. Pretending he’s always at work, as Angela proposes, doesn’t seem realistic. Angela wants to know if she truly wants a kid, but also if she should wait to raise one until she meets “the love of [her] life.” After spending nearly a week of the two-month rehearsal trying to find a partner and coming up empty, Nathan is the quickest fix, both convenient and willing.
But he also doesn’t give her much of a choice. Not really. When Nathan tells Angela his plan, she seems open to it, but says she wants to “pray on it” prior to any commitment. At that moment, Nathan tells Angela that he doesn’t want his position of power to influence her willingness… and she immediately acquiesces. By telling Angela not to worry about the power dynamic, he’s reminding her of the power dynamic. And by reminding her of his power, he’s emphasizing it.
For anyone who worries Angela is being coached — either being fed lines or given an unflattering edit — this dynamic offers a cold dose of reality. Whether Nathan’s choice to play co-caregiver with Angela is motivated by his time as babysitter, the loneliness he admits to feeling while working away from home, his drive to offer as accurate a rehearsal as possible, or all of the above, the way he makes the requests raises questions about the authenticity of the rehearsal, just as his insistence on finding a partner did. How much of the ensuing child-rearing is her rehearsal vs. Nathan’s? How much does she feel like she’s living a simulation of one possible future vs. going along with Willy Wonka’s imaginative factory tour? And when it comes down to what she gets out of the rehearsal (or doesn’t), how much of that is Nathan’s fault or her own?
In other words, there’s not just tension in the show’s awkward interactions. There’s tension between the actor and the director, the director and his crew, the director and himself. There’s tension in the success or failure of the rehearsal, especially now that it’s been extended beyond one episode.
Nathan Fielder in “The Rehearsal”
Allyson Riggs / HBO
It’s Time To Stop Comparing “The Rehearsal” To “Nathan For You”
That’s why “The Rehearsal’s” best point of comparison isn’t “Nathan For You.” (It’s best parallel, as mentioned by Variety critic Daniel D’Addario, is Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 opus, “Synecdoche, New York,” but that’s its own essay.) Certain correlations are inevitable, given Fielder’s limited body of work as well as superficial similarities between his two created series (his presence onscreen, his narration, his benevolent raison d’être). But the Nathan trying to boost small businesses isn’t the same Nathan trying to run these rehearsals. For one, the old Nathan’s ideas were bad. They were comically bad, purposefully bad, gloriously bad, but bad nonetheless. His primary objective was getting laughs, and he usually did. This Nathan’s plans are extreme — convoluted, expensive, and perhaps impossible to pull off — but they aren’t without reason. His intentions — while clouded at times and impossible to know with any certainty — are compassionate. And his motivation is much more compelling.
In the first episode, Nathan says, “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that. Humor is my go-to instinct, but every joke is a gamble.” In this telling statement, jokes are framed as a gateway to making people comfortable; a tool to getting along with others. They’re not the end, but part of the journey. They often function the same way in “The Rehearsal.” They help set the audience at ease while Nathan’s greater efforts lie elsewhere. He wants Angela to take the rehearsal seriously. He wants to help her make a major life decision, but he also wants to know if his process can actually help her do that. Her rehearsal’s stakes, as well as “The Rehearsal’s” stakes, are thus much higher than anything on “Nathan For You,” where helping was almost always a happy accident, if not a hopeless prospect from the start.
Plenty of accredited anthropologists, psychologists, and other experts will explain why Fielder’s method is full of holes. Subjects will complain they’ve been unfairly depicted. (Robbin already has.) But that doesn’t matter when you’re invested in Nathan, in the characters, and what they all get out of this experience. It’s not far removed from telling someone that “Severance” isn’t a true story — they’ll look at you and shrug because they’re invested in the story, not the truth. It doesn’t matter that it’s fabricated. What matters is what they glean from it. What matters is what they feel, what they think, and how it affects their life.
What’s real doesn’t matter. That’s what “The Rehearsal” is for.
“The Rehearsal” debuts new episodes Fridays at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.
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