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What Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal says about us

Nathan Fielder, Leslie Jamison, Martin Buber, I, it, Thou, empathy, and, of course, television.

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Key art from Nathan Fielder’s show The Rehearsal shows him seated at a meal surrounded by mannequins of family members.
The Rehearsal’s first season has come to an end. So ... what was it?
HBO

In the season one finale of his deeply weird show The Rehearsal — a production that creates a world suffused, as its pilot episode hinted, with Willy Wonka-style “pure imagination” — Nathan Fielder is being tackled by a child-sized doll. He has previously been tackled by a real 6-year-old child, a character named Adam played in that moment by an actor named Remy. He’s also been tackled by a 9-year-old actor playing Remy playing 6-year-old Adam, and a grown young man who is also playing Adam, but at age 6. These increasingly bizarre permutations of Adam keep emerging from a bedroom, tackling Nathan while shouting, “I love you, Daddy!” Looking to take the human out of the equation, Nathan tries dragging an Adam-sized doll out of the room and voicing the sentiment himself.

That moment echoes the poster for the series, a frankly creepy image that’s been bugging the crap out of me since I first saw it. In the picture, Nathan is at a dinner table, salting his food uncomfortably (Nathan does everything uncomfortably) and looking directly at us. He appears to be surrounded by family, but a double-take reveals that the wife on his right is a life-sized woman doll, and the kid on his left in a beanie is a doll too, and so is the toddler in the high chair over his shoulder. A fake Dalmatian pokes his head over the table, and through the window we spot a sheet with a fake background of trees. Nathan is living his life, except it’s not a life at all; it’s a world of pure imagination, with Nathan surrounded by props and lies and, as he puts it in the finale, “puzzles of my own devising.”

The doll prop literalizes this image, a key to stick in the lock and open one possible door onto an explanation. Of course, it’s Door City over here because there are a lot of ways into The Rehearsal: it’s a show about reality TV, about parenting, about suspension of disbelief. In a way unusual in our ambiguity-averse age, The Rehearsal shoves you down a maze without a map or a thesis statement, entirely on purpose. The goal has something to do with empathy, but maybe not in the way we usually think.

A man carrying a laptop computer strapped open over his shoulders watches two men in conversation in a fake restaurant.
Nathan (or “Nathan”) observes a rehearsal in The Rehearsal.
HBO

The show’s beginning feints in a completely bananas direction: that it’s possible to recreate all the possible outcomes of a complicated interaction, practice them to perfection, and somehow control the outcome. But it spirals fast, with Fielder — well, not Fielder, but “Nathan,” the character he is playing in the show — inexorably moving away from his initial perch as creator, the god of the machinery who observes people from the margins, and toward being the center of the show. The Rehearsal’s emotional arc becomes “Nathan’s” arc. His quest to feel emotion and empathy becomes the show’s.

And so when the finale reveals (or “reveals,” anyhow) that 6-year-old Remy, who doesn’t have a father figure in his life, has latched onto Nathan during their role-playing week and is loath in the manner of 6-year-olds to let go, it pulls the edges even tighter. Remy’s mom Amber tells Nathan her son will be okay, but Nathan, obsessive as always, has to figure out what went wrong, whether there’s something he could have done to prevent this from happening.

So he conducts his final rehearsal (for this season, anyhow), which is not a rehearsal at all but a reenactment. That’s what his rehearsals have been since midseason, when he starts re-doing the Fielder Method class days as well as Adam’s life. The rehearsal conceit has gone mostly out the window; it never made any sense in the first place. Now Nathan is just obsessively rerunning the reel, trying to find the place where the “one mistake” he keeps talking about was made, and how he can fix it.

But why? He can’t fix it. All the HBO money in the world cannot buy him a time machine, and even if we were to take the show at face value — that Nathan is practicing for the kid he might someday have — there’d be no situation in which he didn’t want his own son to think Nathan was his father. What is he trying to do?

The answer doesn’t lie with Nathan, the character; that Nathan is, as one of his producers says to Nathan-playing-Amber, “a weird guy.” But the show is onto something bigger.

Nathan Fielder stands in front of a Christmas tree.
Christmas in the Rehearsal house.
HBO

In talking about the finale after watching it (and gasping, a lot) I was reminded of an essay by Leslie Jamison, “The Empathy Exams,” which appears in a 2014 book of the same title. In the essay, Jamison weaves together several strands of her own story to explore empathy, starting with an unusual job she had as a medical actor. Her job was to play a character — in this case, a woman named Stephanie Phillips, who is having seizures and doesn’t know why — for medical students who, as part of their training, have to diagnose her problem.

Jamison is one of a group of people who work as medical actors who play characters that are pregnant or in an accident or alcoholic or have a burst appendix. What interests her isn’t the job (it pays $13.50 per hour and involves an unlimited supply of granola bars) so much as the way the students respond to the actors, and what they reveal about the shape and limits of empathy.

“Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” she observes. It “requires inquiry as much as imagination.” Probing the word’s origins, Jamison writes that empathy “suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?”

As the essay goes on, in a way not wholly unlike the journey of The Rehearsal’s “Nathan,” Jamison starts to circle away from her exam-room characters and into her own life, as she experiences an abortion and a heart surgery a month apart. She is looking for empathy in those rooms, and learns that it is something we build. She’s interested in a study that finds the more socially self-confident we are, the more likely we are to exhibit empathy toward others. Being confident in social situations means “we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own,” she writes. “To say going through the motions — this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of effort — the labor, the motions, the dance — of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.”

This insight is all over The Rehearsal, a show ruled in part by Nathan’s repeated and plaintive lament that he doesn’t really feel emotions the way he thinks he should, and that he’s a bit baffled by how easy it is for other people. In the show’s first moments, he makes it clear that he’s not comfortable with people and they’re rarely comfortable around him, that he uses humor as a defense mechanism. Actors, he seems to intuit, have to develop the ability to feel other people’s emotions and broach others’ boundaries. Maybe by being an actor he can too?

But to actually broach those boundaries, to “enter another’s pain as you’d enter another country,” requires shifting your positioning relative to other people. That’s what Nathan is constantly trying to do. He can engineer situations (for folks like the first episode’s Kor and episode three’s Patrick) that cause them to have emotions, but those emotions aren’t legible to him. As partner and co-parent, he can’t really work out the emotions of those around them; they’re mysterious to him. He watches Angela with mystified and sometimes exasperated awe. His idea of an acting method is to watch other people and see what their lives are like, with the hope that might somehow help actors know what those people are thinking and feeling. And he has no idea the effect his “rehearsal” is having on Remy until it’s over.

A man crouches on the ground near a young boy and his mother.
Nathan with Remy and his mom Amber.
HBO

The show begs us to get philosophical, so let’s. What he has bumped up against is a much-mused-upon concept regarding how we experience everything that is in the world — people, trees, baristas, our own partners and children. I prefer it through the framework set out by Martin Buber in the 1920s.

Buber — a not-so-incidentally Jewish philosopher — is probably best known for his work I and Thou, which has exerted tremendous influence on 20th-century thinkers and which marries existentialism and theology. I have to oversimplify to a fault here, but in essence, Buber says human experience is embodied in two pairs of words: “I-it” and “I-Thou.” These distinguish between the way we experience the world and the way we enter into relationship in it. (In his framework, this all eventually points toward God.) A layer of human existence takes place in what he terms “I-it,” which is how I experience everything that I can observe and describe and put into a category in the world: the aforementioned tree, the aforementioned barista, and quite possibly people in my life as well. They are objects that I experience as a means to my own end. I look at it. I project onto it my feelings, my assumptions, the things I am sure I know about them. I am, literally, objectifying them.

Then there is the “I-Thou” layer, which is when I have a relationship with not an object, but another subject — an entity that isn’t there to fulfill my objectives and goals, but into whom I am asked to invest myself. This requires intimacy, mutuality, openness, and, yes, empathy. To put it in Jamison’s terms, it is where the border between you and I may be crossed, where we can no longer project onto one another because our relationship is dynamic, allowing for each of us to defy categorization and be who we are. You are whatever category you identify with, but that is not all you are.

Nathan (if not Fielder himself) spends almost all of The Rehearsal flopping around trying to feel and experience the world in a real way. He wants to understand how people feel emotion generally, and more specifically what makes certain people tick: Angela, Thomas, Patrick, Remy.

But all he manages to do is look at them as fitting into categories that he can relate to through another category. Director and actor. Co-parent and co-parent. Teacher and student. Daddy and Adam. Mommy and Remy. In the last 20 seconds of the show, it seems like Nathan has made a breakthrough by inadvertently using the method he used to coax emotion from Patrick on himself: he’s artificially raised the stakes into a fake realm, and now he’s feeling real emotion. He’s not (fake) Remy’s mom; he’s (fake) Adam’s dad.

All of that is very touching, I think, though it’s also drenched in layers of irony. But what makes The Rehearsal so exquisite, so enduring, so infuriating, so perfect is the realization that it’s turned its apparatus on us.

This is not really a show about Nathan, a guy who has been literally and figuratively showing his ass throughout. He’s a character anyhow, and one the show is at pains to paint in the worst possible light whenever possible.

No. The Rehearsal is definitely a show about us, and about the deep-seated and, I think, inescapable ways that television coaxes us to make I-it our default mode. It’s a show filled with characters who we kind of think we know after they say a couple things but who keep shapeshifting on us. Nathan keeps changing categories. Angela seems like one kind of familiar religious fanatic, but at moments she’s genuinely surprising. (She loves violent movies! She gives Nathan great advice in the finale!) Her antonym seems to be Miriam, the Hebrew tutor, who seems like a brilliant badass, but then turns out to be her own kind of fanatic by the end of the episode. Adults keep turning out to be anti-Semites; the kids keep turning out to be startlingly brilliant actors. Expectations shift. The bar isn’t real. The house isn’t real. The snow isn’t real. Is anything real?

TV, as media theorists have said for a long time, coaxes us into a less active relationship with the medium itself, even as it immerses us in the world of its characters. But that’s what makes The Rehearsal so genuinely upsetting at times to watch. You think you know what you’ve just watched, and you want to make pronouncements about it. But what if what you’re doing is objectifying the people on screen, slotting them into categories of your own devising based on whatever frame you most want to put around them? As Nathan puts it near the end of the fourth episode, “When you assume what others think, maybe all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.”

I’ve heard it said that this makes it a criticism-proof show; I think that’s to mistake the nature of criticism entirely, which is just watching closely and then describing what you see. The most interesting part of The Rehearsal, by far, is the reactions of the audience to what’s happening on screen — which is, in the end, criticism. Fielder has somehow managed to reach out of the TV and drag us into relationship with the show in a way that’s often reserved for experimental documentaries. Our reactions, whatever they are, can be an excellent reminder that we know much less about others than we think we do. And that the medium of TV, with its frame around the action and its plot-driven narrative, rarely dependent on an unreliable narrator, encourages us to think we know what we’ve just seen. Even in a reality TV world, when you’d think we know how edits and directorial choices manipulate reality, Fielder has pulled off making us doubt everything once again.

I hate to say the thesis of The Rehearsal is to escape screens and touch grass a little more, but I don’t think it’s not. Nathan looks at us in the poster, but he isn’t looking at us; he’s looking at a camera. And we’re looking at a picture on a screen. He can’t see us; we can’t see him. It’s when the I-it transmutes to I-Thou that real emotions start to flow. “Could it be,” he says aloud in the finale, “that the path to forgiveness lies in someone else’s eyes?”

The Rehearsal is streaming on HBO Max and has been renewed for a second season.