'The Rehearsal' review: Nathan Fielder takes reality to an absurd new level Part comedy, part drama, Nathan Fielder's new show is a social experiment of sorts, where people work within elaborate sets to try to figure out ways to resolve complicated real-life situations.

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TV Reviews

In HBO's reality series 'The Rehearsal,' participants practice real-life scenarios

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Almost a decade ago, in 2013, Nathan Fielder starred in a Comedy Central series that lasted until 2017 called "Nathan For You." And it had Nathan interacting with real people, advising them on how to improve their respective business ventures. His advice was often extreme or outlandish, which is where the reality show's comedy came from. But the reactions and interactions were real. Now Nathan Fielder is back with a new series premiering Friday on HBO. This one has him offering advice to people about their real life personal issues. It's called "The Rehearsal." And our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "The Rehearsal" is hard to pin down. It's a comedy but only in spots. Other times, it's unexpectedly touching, even dramatic. It's a reality show, maybe one of the most real reality shows I've ever seen in capturing actual behavior, yet it does so much of the time in absurdly unnatural, artificially created environments. And while Nathan Fielder has set up his new series as a scientific social experiment of sorts, trying to help people find the best ways to maneuver in a given situation, many times he's the one doing the learning or becoming a subject in his own experiment.

In the premiere episode, Nathan places a very specific ad targeted at people who have some issue they're trying to overcome. A 50-year-old teacher named Core Skeet replies, and his issue is that he's lied to a small group of friends for years, claiming to have had an advanced educational degree. He wants to confess the truth to one woman in particular but is afraid of her reaction. Nathan's pitch, and the premise of his show, is that if you practice a series of scenarios and variables, you can find the best way to proceed. In other words, you can prepare for this event with a series of rehearsals, then perform it for real. The concept itself sounds absurd, and that absurdity is only added to when Nathan uses HBO's significant program budget to go all in. Organizational flow charts break down the various possibilities. Actors are hired and coached to play, in rehearsals, the people the subjects will confront in real life. And entire sets are built where those practice sessions are staged - working replicas of homes, bars and restaurants where the real meetings eventually will occur.

Sounds crazy? Why would anyone say yes to such an idea? Well, because Nathan Fielder doesn't leave anything to chance, not even his pitch to his prospective subjects as in this scene when he first visits the apartment of the teacher, Core Skeet, and presents his plan for the rehearsal by talking about his past series "Nathan For You," which the teacher hasn't seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REHEARSAL")

NATHAN FIELDER: I mean, you should check it out. It's...

CORE SKEET: Oh, I - definitely.

FIELDER: But a lot of it involved working with real people.

SKEET: Yeah.

FIELDER: So I'd have to put myself in all these uncertain environments. And I became really good at predicting how people would act in a future situation.

SKEET: OK. OK.

FIELDER: For example...

SKEET: Yeah?

FIELDER: Like, this conversation's going pretty well, right?

SKEET: OK. I mean, I think it's - yeah.

FIELDER: Do you think so? I don't know.

SKEET: So far, so good.

FIELDER: I mean, we've been having fun...

SKEET: Yeah.

FIELDER: ...I assume. We've been...

SKEET: Yeah.

FIELDER: ...Sharing some laughs so far.

SKEET: Yeah. I hope to continue that way.

(LAUGHTER)

FIELDER: So that's no accident. Everything that's happened so far today, I've rehearsed it dozens of times - these exact words in a replica of your home with an actor playing you.

SKEET: OK.

FIELDER: Remember a couple weeks ago when the gas company came by because of a leak in your building?

SKEET: Yes.

FIELDER: Well, there wasn't a leak in your building. That was my team.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'll check the stove.

FIELDER: And when you gave them access, they secretly made a digital map of your entire home. We then recreated every detail of the space as a physical set in a warehouse a few miles from here. And with the help of a fake you, I could practice every single permutation of this interaction and have a plan for it.

BIANCULLI: I know. Now it sounds creepy. In fact, it sounds a bit like "The Magic Christian," that cult Terry Southern movie where Peter Sellers played a rich guy who used his fortune to pull elaborate tricks on people just to see what they do for money. But Nathan Fielder isn't out to make fun of the people in his shows. He's genuinely interested in helping them. And once each experiment in "The Rehearsal" begins, something strange and hard to explain happens. You really start to see patterns and flaws and obstacles to overcome. You see people, real people.

I've seen five episodes of "The Rehearsal." In addition to the teacher who wants to confess his falsehood, there's an episode about a man who wants his brother to release a grandfather's inheritance and another about a woman who is afraid to commit to the responsibilities of parenthood and marriage. Not all of these experiments reach their natural or expected conclusions. Despite all of Nathan's meticulous planning and flowcharts, there's a lot of chaos theory at play here.

In one upcoming episode, Nathan wants to confront Angela, one of his subjects, about her commitment to the pretend-marital-relationship experiment. So in true "Rehearsal" fashion, before he does that, he rehearses that confrontation with an actress playing Angela, who hits him with some improvised and very direct questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REHEARSAL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: So is this silly? Or is it something that I should take seriously?

FIELDER: It's silly and serious. I mean, it's complicated. Life can be more than one thing, right? Life's complicated. And why are you even here, huh? What's the real reason? Honestly.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: OK. Well, why are you here, huh? Why are you doing this? For you - are you really trying to help me? Or am I the silly part that you talk about, huh? Is my life the joke? Do you sit here with your friends at the end of the day laughing at me?

FIELDER: No, you're not the joke, not at all. No one's the joke. The situations are funny but interesting, too.

BIANCULLI: Nathan is visibly thrown by that version of the rehearsal and asks for another in which she reacts a little more nicely. But the real event with the real Angela is harder to control and to predict. "The Rehearsal" is unlike any TV show I've ever seen, and I'm not even sure I'd classify it as a comedy. But whatever Nathan Fielder is up to here, I'm fascinated by it.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed Nathan Fielder's new series, "The Rehearsal," which begins tomorrow on HBO. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz about how Americans on the political right have turned to Hungary's authoritarian government as a model, or with Rafael Agustin, who wrote for the series "Jane The Virgin" and has a new memoir called "Illegally Yours" about growing up in America undocumented, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to read about what goes on behind the scenes on our show, check out our newsletter, which you can subscribe to via our website, freshair.npr.org.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski with additional support today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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