“The Rehearsal”: Absurd, cringe-worthy comedy

“The Rehearsal”: Absurd, cringe-worthy comedy
A promotional photo from Fielder’s “The Rehearsal.” Photo courtesy of HBO.com.

A mix of reality television and cringe comedy, “The Rehearsal” is the latest endeavor by deadpan comedian Nathan Fielder (“Nathan for You”). The show is a hilarious and deep exploration of social interactions, although it occasionally pushes its anxiety-fueled humor too far.

Throughout the series, Fielder ropes in real people from Craigslist and helps them endlessly rehearse difficult situations.

The scenarios range from a person coming clean to their friend about lying to a single woman wanting to experience raising a child before having one. The methods range from building a replica of a bar where the conversation will take place to hiring child actors — and a terrifying robot baby — to pretend to be the woman’s kid.

In this way, “The Rehearsal” is a natural successor of Fielder’s previous show, “Nathan for You,” in which he ironically helps actual small businesses by suggesting outrageous strategies. In the first episode of the new show, Fielder admits that he used the format of rehearsing to prepare for episodes of his previous hit.

What “The Rehearsal” succeeds at, and what Fielder has spent over a decade perfecting, is providing commentary on social interactions by breaking them down in absurd and comedic ways.

A main theme of the interactions is the chaotic nature of reality, with Fielder saying,“Maybe it’s more unethical to leave things to chance.” As Fielder guides his subjects through their rehearsal, he maps out a flowchart of every possible way the interaction could go.

This cold approach to humanity also highlights the nature of connecting with others. At one point, Fielder expects the topic of his real-life divorce to come up when talking to one of the subjects, so he plans for a random person to interrupt them and change the conversation.

While the main strength of “The Rehearsal” is its analysis of social nature, this feat is made possible by the meticulous production quality of the series.

The backbone of the show is the extravagant set design that goes into the rehearsals. In the first episode, Fielder pretends to be a maintenance worker so he can secretly enter the apartment of the person he’s helping and build a scale model of the room in a warehouse.

Working well with the set design is the camera work, led by Marco Codero (“Nathan for You”). Replicating reality TV, the show uses hidden cameras and a handheld filming style. Given the invasive nature of this approach, the show’s cinematography is purposefully unsettling. Additionally, Fielder uses the cameras to oversee his ridiculous social experiment.

While “The Rehearsal” is a groundbreaking example of the cringe-based comedy that Fielder is striving for, it occasionally leans too far into this, causing discomfort and confusion for viewers.

As the rehearsals that Fielder leads become more extravagant, the subject matter escalates as well. While the series starts with simple scenarios, some episodes use topics like antisemitism, drug abuse and self-harm in an attempt for laughs. In these cases, Fielder’s goal seems to be shock-value, not comedy or commentary.

Additionally, the show is intentionally vague about where reality stops and television starts. As a result, it’s hard for viewers to discern what Fielder is trying to accomplish with his comedic style.

While “The Rehearsal” can leave audiences cringing from discomfort and wanting to slap Fielder if they ever run into him on the street, it’s a thought-provoking blend of humor and commentary that fine tunes Fielder’s comedic style.