The most elaborate ruse of Nathan For You’s second season was already seen by the show’s largest audience to date: Back in February, an IP-flouting coffee shop named Dumb Starbucks moved into a strip mall in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood, capturing public imagination along the way. Was it an art installation? Was it an anti-capitalist prank, breaking down consumerist facades by affixing “dumb” to Starbucks’ recognizable logo and popular product line? Perhaps it was a jab at the flimsiness of U.S. copyright law, by which anyone could trade off of Starbucks’ insanely profitable brand with the deployment of the correct adjective.
Turns out it was all of these things and none of these things—most accurately, it was a stunt staged for the hilarious Comedy Central vehicle of Canadian-born comic Nathan Fielder. Nathan For You was the sleeper success of the network’s stellar 2013 season, an outlier among more traditional (but no less funny) sketch series like Kroll Show or Inside Amy Schumer. While taking a page from the book of past TV pranksters like Sacha Baron Cohen, Tom Green, and the crew behind Trigger Happy TV, the first season of Nathan For You depended on the dumbfounded and incredulous responses of Viewers Like You—but the bystanders are never the butt of the joke. The show thrives on these uncomfortable reactions—“Everyone’s default state is this pleasantry state. My goal in the show is to undercut that as quickly as possible,” he recently told The New York Times—but its true targets are acts of TV deception.
The star’s Nathan For You persona contains traces of reality-TV fixers like Tabatha Coffey (Tabatha Takes Over) and Robert Irvine (Restaurant: Impossible), but his approach to assisting struggling businesses is a fully “Emperor’s New Clothes” affair. Hooking a mechanic to a polygraph machine—as Fielder suggests in the second-season premiere, “Mechanic/Realtor”—will not bring more cars into that mechanic’s shop. The real-estate agent featured in that episode’s second segment isn’t shown selling a single property with the help of the supernaturally inclined strategy Fielder recommends. Saving the business is beside the point on the shows Fielder satirizes; on those shows, it’s all about the dramatic flare-ups and the bridge-burning walkouts. In turn, Nathan For You uses its host’s ludicrous “advice” to unearth wholly honest, startlingly funny material from its guest stars.
The show’s second season takes that theme to new extremes, as any good sequel should. Wisely, Fielder elected to hold the segment about the Dumb Starbucks phenomenon for a later episode. Rather than opening with the viral fireworks, season two’s first couple of episodes root around within the mechanics of Nathan For You, emphasizing the impressive amount of fakery that goes into the show. For a time, “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.” sets up its cameras around a faux film set; Fielder works the words “dishonesty” and “fraud” into his voice-over narration, but the phrase “liars and deceivers” organically comes up in the spiel of one on-screen guest. The host’s uncanny deadpan is matched with a celebrity impersonator (a man whose entire livelihood depends on being someone he’s not) and a professional psychic (who could be faking it just as well as Fielder). A master of stealthy jokes who recently waged a tug-of-war with Instagram over pornographic images hidden in his posts, Fielder and his writing staff constructed these early season-two episodes as nesting dolls of the lies we tell ourselves—and the lies we let TV tell us.
Season two puts a different spin on this concept by showing “how far” the star is willing to go to cover his tracks. The main scheme in “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.” tumbles down a rabbit hole of justification after an expert alerts Fielder that he may have committed legitimate criminal fraud. It’s a thrilling play on the show’s standard format, launching a larger, hysterically convoluted story from the initial sketch. Such actions are a fresh approach for Nathan For You, a show that uses lingering silence to explosive effect. In those instances, Fielder manipulates the tension, allowing himself to look like the buffoon, as when he blames an operating system for a particularly embarrassing polygraph result. (“Is that a Windows 95?”)
There’s a sense that Fielder’s holding back a little in the season premiere, a by-the-book episode that follows the show’s familiar beats: Absurd business ideas are introduced and treated with varying levels of credulity. Yet even those segments produce moments of stunning honesty from Fielder’s clients—an anecdote from the real estate agent recalls the season-one highlight in which a gas-station owner freely and gleefully advocates the benefits of drinking a toddler’s urine. If Fielder’s front ever cracks, it’s at times like these, when the utter honesty of the people he’s dealing with cuts through the illusion and he registers a hint of wonder at his creation. It’s the flip-side of his signature stone face, and it should be enticement enough to keep watching Nathan For You, if only to see how he reacted when Dumb Starbucks blew up.
Created by: Nathan Fielder and Michael Koman
Starring: Nathan Fielder
Returns: Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central
Format: Reality-show parody
Two episodes watched for review
TV Club reviews by John Teti will appear weekly