The Rehearsal: the docu-reality show that will break your brain | Television

The paradox at the heart of The Rehearsal is this: it’s a relatively small show that relies on critical buzz and word of mouth for its success, but it is also impossible to explain to a newcomer. Here, let me try.

The Rehearsal is an unscripted comedy in which Nathan Fielder prepares members of the public for big, uncomfortable real-life moments by meticulously rehearsing every conceivable way the moment could play out. In episode one, Fielder meets a man who needs to tell a co-worker that he lied about elements of his education. Fielder hires a lookalike to play the part of the co-worker, gets the lookalike to furtively interview the real co-worker to learn her mannerisms, builds an exact replica of the bar in which the difficult conversation is to take place (right down to the half-deflated balloon stuck in the air conditioning) and spends day after day going over the conversation, using every permeation of emotion thinkable, so that the real-life conversation can go as smoothly as possible. It’s basically Synecdoche, New York: The Reality Show.

If you’re wondering why HBO would dedicate what must be an impossibly hefty budget to copy an impenetrable art-house movie from 14 years ago, I have bad news. The brain-breaking explanation I gave above only represents the tip of the iceberg. Because, as The Rehearsal wears on, a different story begins to emerge. Fielder tries to help a woman who isn’t sure if she is ready for motherhood by giving her a child to rehearse with. Or, rather, a series of children who are a) seamlessly shipped in and out of her (fake) house in shifts to comply with child labor laws, and b) designed to age faster than a normal child, so that the woman can experience the full sweep of motherhood in a condensed time. Soon, Fielder decides to join in with the experiment, becoming the fake father to the fake children and the fake husband to the real woman, and everything starts to unravel. The final episode, which includes a scene where one of the preschool actors screams in anguish because he is unable to discern the difference between real life and the show’s construct, may count as the most upsetting 30 minutes of television in recent memory.

As such, The Rehearsal has fielded no end of criticism from viewers, who have accused it of pushing exploitation to breaking point. And that, you suspect, is exactly what Fielder wanted. Because what The Rehearsal is really about is the murky space between fiction and reality.

Taken at first glance, The Rehearsal is simply a cruel reality show; one that delights in pushing its subjects through such a merciless parade of exploitation that the whole thing starts to feel distasteful. But dig deeper and you could be forgiven for thinking that the real victims are us. Some of the show’s scenarios are just a little too pat, and some of the viewpoints a little too extreme, to be convincing. To put it simply: is the whole thing scripted? Could it be that the reality Fielder has apparently meticulously constructed is also just a construct?

It is very easy to fall down this rabbit hole. Reddit, for example, has tied itself in knots trying to work out which elements of The Rehearsal are real and which are fake. Long YouTube essays have appeared, attempting to pick apart the show’s dense layers of meaning. When some of the subjects began offering their services on Cameo, a website that allows celebrities to send personalized video messages to fans, it suddenly made everything worse. Were they doing it because they were riding out their five minutes of fame? Were they actors who needed the money? Or did Fielder mandate it, because he knew that we knew that seeing them on Cameo would confuse the issue and he is an evil puppet-master hellbent on messing with us? The Rehearsal leaves you questioning the nature of reality itself, which is a heavy load for a half-hour comedy.

We may never know the truth. Fielder, in a bid to preserve the mystery, has not done any press to promote the show. The closest thing we have to an explanation comes in fragments from others. He was a consulting producer on Who Is America?, so he clearly shares Sacha Baron Cohen’s fondness for pushing comedy into unsuspecting worlds. In a recent Vulture profile, Derren Brown was cited as a key influence – a figure who also blurs the line between fiction and reality to an uncomfortable degree. But that’s all we have to go on. For now, and perhaps forever, The Rehearsal simply exists as a mystery designed to break your mind.

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