The Rehearsal is cringe comedy at its deepest

A particular video by comedian Nathan Fielder always made me laugh. In it he disguises himself as a pharmacist and prepares a recipe – except he uses raisins instead of pills. The joke is nonsensical and immediately obvious, but it goes further: Fielder carefully measures the dosage, packs the bottle of raisins in a paper bag, says, “Here you are, ma’am,” while keeping the bag out of the way of anyone in particular, and then solemnly puts the original box of raisins back on a shelf. It’s the kind of part that runs just long enough to make you wonder why it’s doing it — and by extension, why you’re still watching.

It also serves as a good litmus test of how many fielders you can handle; He’s a comedian whose shtick you either get right away or never. Best known for the docu-comedy series Nathan for you, in which he came up with absurd ideas to save ailing small businesses, Fielder perfected a screen persona as a highly dedicated, painfully dead, almost sociopathic, but maybe just dumb genius. Pushing every situation into its most uncomfortable territory is his superpower. Take the raisins, for example: the fact that raisins resemble pills isn’t all that funny, but he’s so devoted to filling out the recipe that the absurdity takes over. He looks like he thinks this is his job.

The sample, Fielder’s first leading man project in five years, takes his signature commitment to the extreme. The HBO series sees Fielder conducting “rehearsals,” elaborately staged scenarios that recreate parts of ordinary people’s lives designed to help them prepare for something: maybe a confession they need to make to a close friend, or what for A difficult life choice might look like if you embark on it. Each episode shows the crazy work that goes into playing such an intense sotune. (You’re forgiven if you think you’re watching a scene Synecdoche, New York.) But these expensive ventures alone do not make it The sample the strangest “comedy” to air on TV. The show is at odds with its mastermind. in the Nathan for you, Fielder was in total control, a troll who tricked people into following his outlandish ideas by playing the role of a successful business consultant. in the The sample, Fielder just thinks it is him. He is amazed at his own efforts, more of an observer than a true advisor. And as the show goes on, she questions what Fielder wants from all these nonsensical practice sessions. Is it about the ease of deceiving others, or about deceiving yourself?

This question fuels the suspense of the show. through The sample, the most notable scenes include Fielder becoming a victim of his own schemes and going against the rules he has set. Consider the closing moments of the first episode, which aired Friday: Fielder just finished a rehearsal with his subject, a man named Core, but he lied to Core to pull it off and now wants to admit the lie. Fielder goes through his own rehearsal of the confession with a backup actor. The scene switches to Fielder speaking to the real Core, except this time Fielder doesn’t reveal anything.

The moment is intriguingly meta: it’s unclear if he’s broken or if Core ever wanted to tell the truth. Fielder has a hand in everything to do with the show; He provides the voice-over narration, directs the episodes, and constructs the scenarios. Inserting a scene acknowledging the deception he ultimately fails to reveal to Core, Fielder appears to be commenting on himself without saying a single word. Maybe he wants viewers to question his goals. Maybe he’s showing that he understands the artistry of his setup. Or maybe he feels guilty about his underhanded approach to comedy.

Again and again, a subtle, silent conflict seems to arise between the fielder on screen and the fielder behind the camera. These moments mark a shift in Fielder’s work, which previously treated TV Fielder as a fictional character, exaggerating his need to connect with the people he meets and ignoring how bizarre he could be. Fielder occasionally blurred the lines Nathan for you, but he tended to maintain a strict boundary between his real self and his act. Now, by including scenes like the one with Core, he’s directly struggling with how TV Fielder is perceived.

If this all sounds more like brain teasers than humor, don’t worry: it’s a lot of fun just to watch The sample as one big social experiment run by a perfectionist with an incredibly big budget, courtesy of HBO. The editing is demanding, similar to in Nathan for you and How To With John Wilson (which Fielder produces) and often punctuate a joke by zooming in on an amusing detail or catering to the comedian’s reaction at just the right moment. Fielder still likes to trouble his subjects – who, for the most part, find these rehearsals clearly ridiculous. And his crew’s creations are remarkable: they build a replica Brooklyn bar for rehearsals, stage a fake winter around a rural Oregon home, and even cast a number of child actors so a woman can simulate giving birth to a son by the childhood to rear teens. Through all of this, you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at, but what you’re seeing is so oddly addictive that you can’t help but keep looking.

As well as Nathan for you done once, The sample has already drawn criticism for the way Fielder seems to only single out and exploit odd characters for his comedy and belittle the people he says he’s trying to help. But that’s a willful misinterpretation of the show. After all, Fielder is the real butt of the joke, the only person on screen who seems unable to accept that no sample of life can live up to reality. The show explores the futility of the practice at the expense of its creator. It shows how no amount of scrutiny can force reality to bend to anyone’s will—perhaps least of all Fielder’s.

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