“If you listen to philosophical discussions,” the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott writes in “The Child, the Family, and the Outside World,” from 1964, “you sometimes hear people using a lot of words over the business of what is real and what is not real.” A well-adjusted adult, Winnicott goes on, has a solid grasp of what is real and objective versus what is imaginary and subjective. A child, crucially, has not yet made this distinction. “The world that we share with the child is also the child’s own imaginative world, and so the child is able to experience it intensely. The reason for this is that we do not insist, when we are dealing with a child of that age, on an exact perception of the external world.”
Yet the problem in the first-season finale of Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal” is just that: a world that insists on itself as it is, and not as a child imagines it. (Or, in this case, as a child has been directed to imagine it.) In the show’s immersive, improvisational domestic scenario, a boy named Remy is one of several children who are cast as the son of Fielder’s alter ego. Remy calls Nathan “Daddy”; they exchange “I love you”s; they’re even comedically simpatico. (After Remy invents a character named Dr. Fart, Nathan praises the kid’s ability to “escalate the sketch.”) Soon enough, though, the external world intrudes on the imaginative one. Remy’s time on the show is ending, but his idea of Nathan-as-Daddy is not. The boy doesn’t have a dad at home. He is lost and inconsolable, and Nathan’s remorse is palpable.
A central question that hangs over “The Rehearsal,” as well as Fielder’s previous semi-reality series, “Nathan for You,” is that of informed consent. To what extent do Fielder’s subjects understand what they are taking part in? And how much does it matter? The uncertainty is most precipitous whenever Fielder’s project has involved children, who, of course, can’t give informed consent at all—either to participate in the first place or to have their participation edited into a public, permanent record. “Nathan for You,” in which Nathan offered terrible advice to small-business owners, featured, in a Season 3 episode, a wondrously deranged segment in which he tried to persuade a hotel proprietor to stock “a portable soundproof box that completely isolates the child from his parents’ carnal acts.” (Part of the product-testing phase was placing the box, and the unwitting little boy inside it, a few feet from a full-blown orgy.) Even when “Nathan for You” crossed ethical lines, the results could have a grim usefulness to them. A Season 2 segment about a dud toy called the Doink-it—Nathan enlists Santa Claus himself to convince kids that owning the Doink-it is the only way to avert a kind of social death—becomes an unsettling exhibit in how quickly and easily a child can be molded, manipulated, and deceived. Even the most sympathetic viewer may conclude that this is, in part, what “The Rehearsal” became, too.
Part of the brilliance and seduction of the show, however, is in its slipperiness, its mutability—it never stops changing and never stays in place, and so, for all we know, Remy and Nathan’s misery was mostly staged, or heavily contrived in the editing room. With that in mind, then, perhaps the best way to watch “The Rehearsal” is, borrowing from Winnicott, to assume the child’s point of view. Attempt no discernment between real and not real. Accept whatever your imagination gives you, and experience it intensely. For example, following a tearful scene with Remy, Nathan’s mien conveys something that even the most capable parent may feel a few times in their child-management career: the overwhelming certainty of having completely and irreparably fucked up. You might look at Nathan just then and see yourself. That, too, is “real.”
It didn’t take long for “The Rehearsal” to become a show overtly about parenting. At first, though, for all its absurdist convolutions and seemingly unlimited budget, it sat more or less adjacent to any number of expert-advice reality-TV programs (just as “Nathan for You” did). In the first episode, we meet Kor Skeete, who wants to come clean about a long-ago lie he told a friend, so Nathan casts an actress to play the friend and directs his production team to build a full-sized replica of the bar in which the admission will unfold. Now Kor has a scene partner and a stage for rehearsing his confession, over and over—although Nathan remains the dramatist, the auteur. In another episode, a subject, Patrick, wants to rehearse asking his brother for his share of a family inheritance; Nathan’s remedy involves, among other things, a literal gold-digging expedition. Angela, introduced in Episode 2, wants to rehearse marriage and motherhood, so Nathan sets her up in her dream home and arranges a round-the-clock rotation of child actors, including Remy, who age from infancy to teenhood under her roof.
It is with Angela that “The Rehearsal” begins to shape-shift, when the hall of mirrors starts multiplying on itself and turning inward. A suitable marriage-rehearsal partner cannot be located for Angela—whose brand of Christianity is as extreme as her capacity for passive aggression, and who believes that phenomena ranging from Halloween to Google are satanic—so Nathan steps into the role himself. Amplifying the show’s title, and underscoring the new pressures upon him as a performer, Nathan opens and begins teaching classes at the Fielder Method School of Acting, but then he casts an actor to play him and casts himself as one of his own students. (“I wanted to impress Nathan,” Student Nathan confides, in voice-over.) Nathan realizes that he hasn’t established sufficiently dad-like relationships with any of the child actors playing Adam, Angela’s pretend son, so he sets aside his other rehearsals to focus on Angela’s alone. Adam, age fifteen, is angry and deep into drugs; he is made to O.D. so that the show can rewind to Adam, age six, and grant Nathan a do-over at fatherhood. By the end of the fifth episode, Angela has self-ejected from her own rehearsal, Adam has become Jewish like his dad, and father and son are celebrating Hanukkah together. (A high point of the episode is when Nathan’s voice-over declares, “It was time to stand up for my own values,” as the camera watches him dragging Angela’s Christmas tree out of the house and, with a little grunt, heaving it into the woods.)
Other viewers, including my colleague Naomi Fry, have pointed out the many similarities between “The Rehearsal” and the 2008 film “Synecdoche, New York,” written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Both center on a protagonist who is simultaneously passive and a control freak, who directs his actors to stalk the real figures whom they are playing, and who dumps insane amounts of other people’s money on giant film sets that are replicas of actual places. But “Synecdoche” is death-haunted, dirge-like, intentionally airless, whereas “The Rehearsal” is a thrilling paradox: ostensibly designed and mapped and thought through to all logical extremes, and yet it feels as though anything can happen. “Synecdoche,” in a typical flourish, enacts its parental anxieties by making the lead character’s daughter renounce him on her deathbed before expiring of tattoo-ink poisoning; “The Rehearsal,” in contrast, depicts every parent’s worst nightmare, then simply reincarnates the kid.
Adam’s rebirth is engineered by sending the teen-age version of him down an enclosed, chute-like playground slide, only for the little-kid version to emerge from the other end. (It’s sort of like the end of “Big.”) The maneuver carries a double risk: it might scan either as mawkish or as a mean prank on those who are moved by mawkishness. The scene evokes the balancing act of another Kaufman script—the one for “Adaptation,” which was directed by Spike Jonze (and adapted from my colleague Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief”). In “Adaptation,” the twin-brother screenwriters Charlie and Donald Kaufman embody a sense-and-sensibility duality: Charlie is a genius, cerebral, self-doubting, neurotic, averse to formula and any perceived excess of sentiment, but longing to feel passionate about something; Donald is shambling and trite, lacking in obvious talent, but also freer, braver, unafraid of embarrassment. When Charlie discloses that the girl Donald loved in high school made fun of him behind his back, Donald is unfazed. “It was mine, that love. I owned it,” he says. “You are what you love, not what loves you.” When I first saw “Adaptation,” upon its release, in 2002, I wondered whether the film was endorsing Donald’s attitude or mocking it. But Kaufman and Jonze were never asking us to choose. Nathan himself articulates this either/both world view when he is rehearsing a confrontation with a version of Angela, who is played by an actress from the Fielder Method School. Fake Angela, in character, demands to know how seriously, or not, she should be taking the rehearsal. “It’s silly and serious,” Nathan replies. “I mean, it’s complicated—life can be more than one thing, right?” In other words, you can cry a little when Adam comes down the slide and laugh a little at yourself for doing so. (By you, I mean me.)
The entire arc of Season 1 of “The Rehearsal” maps onto the journey of parenthood: you start by trying to foresee, preëmpt, and outwit the future—by believing, as Nathan does in the early rehearsals, that it may be possible to leave almost nothing to chance—and you end up dwelling on the many times when parenthood (and childhood) outwitted you. Nathan recruits others to stand in for Remy: a slightly older child, a full-grown man, a doll, etc. He deploys them in order to relive his time with Remy “and see if there was a better path,” he explains. “After all, how can you move on from a mistake if you don’t even know what you could have done to avoid it?” This final turn, which casts Nathan in a new role, too, produces the season’s ambiguous, vertiginous, and astonishing climax. (There’s even a killer punch line.) Is it “real”? Nathan Fielder’s autonomic nervous system appears to think so: his voice snags for a split second, he begins breathing harder, his ears turn a bright, deep red. Sorrow is a proof of love, he says; sadness means that your heart works. “Life’s better with surprises,” he says. Or, as Winnicott writes, “there is no such thing as life without tears, except where there is compliance without spontaneity.” ♦