To describe an episode of Nathan For You as epic feels oxymoronic. The show has such a low-key, shambling charm about it, even when Nathan is pulling off stunts like “Smokers Allowed,” which require an unbelievable level of effort, planning, and attention to detail. But “epic” is the only word that feels fitting for “The Hero,” which is one of the weirdest, most surreal things Nathan For You has ever done, not to mention the most emotionally powerful. It’s a big enough concept that the show foregoes its standard opening credit sequence—which doesn’t really apply since Nathan isn’t helping any small businesses—and replaces it with sophisticated environmental typography. That kind of build up has to have a pretty special episode behind it, and indeed, “The Hero” is one of Nathan For You’s best half-hours yet.
It’s not until Nathan does something completely different from his original shtick that it becomes clear how restricting the show’s “small business consultant” conceit can be. “The Hero” presents Nathan as more than a guy who comes up with crazy viral ideas for struggling business. Here, he’s a humanitarian more broadly, interesting in helping people activate their potential and achieve their dreams. As it turns out, all you have to do to make your dreams come true is get an experimental comedian to get his hands on a 3-D printer and a body suit and impersonate you as a philanthrophic daredevil. I suppose you could do all the hard work yourself, which in this case required Nathan to practice walking a steel wire for as much time as it takes to gestate a human child, but why when Nathan can do all the work while you take all the credit and get all the rewards?
It sounds like a pretty good deal to Corey Calderwood, a part-time arcade worker who lives with his grandparents in Ventura and answers Nathan’s open call for a reality show about people looking to improve their lives. Corey doesn’t know much about what Nathan has planned for him, but like most Nathan For You participants, is more than happy to sign his life away in exchange for a potentially beneficial, but certainly once-in-a-lifetime experience. (And at least this time, Nathan is totally forthcoming about how disoriented and confused Corey will be during this process.) Nathan sits Corey down for an exhaustive interview, during which he learns about Corey’s background and interests, as well as his fondness for pasta alfredo (or “alfredo pasta,” in Calderwoodian parlance) and the phrase “cool beans.” Nathan also takes the opportunity to study Corey’s loping speaking rhythms and the nuances of his mannerisms, such as his tendency to take extra-long blinks when he’s talking. After the interview, Nathan has most of what he needs to pull off the performance of a lifetime.
Part of the thrill of “The Hero” comes from the audience being just as much in the dark as Corey is, even though by the time they sit down to talk for the first time, Nathan has already framed it as an experiment to see if he could turn a total stranger into a national hero. It isn’t until Nathan has Corey go in for a “routine physical” (a pretext for taking a 3-D map of Corey’s face), that it becomes totally clear that Nathan’s plan is to actually become another person. That’s the point at which Nathan’s criteria for choosing his subject also becomes clear. Nathan’s stated plan to find someone interested in changing their lives seemed a bit vague, but he was specifically looking for someone he could credibly impersonate with make-up and some additional body padding. Nathan takes Corey to his new digs—a trailer in the Mojave Desert with a poop bucket—and leaves him to fend for himself while he puts the finishing touches on a public tightrope walk to raise awareness for a breast cancer charity.
But Nathan wants to address Corey’s life goals in a holistic way, so he doesn’t just focus on the wire-walking stunt. As Alt-Corey, Nathan sets up an OK Cupid account to find Corey the love he longs for. Alt-Corey goes on a date with Jasmine, who is just the type of lovable nerd that flocks to OK Cupid, and Nathan does his “more charming” impression of Corey while Jasmine eats it up. (She even likes his use of “cool beans.”) Alt-Corey tells Jasmine about his forthcoming charity stunt, and that he wants to kiss her, but wants their first kiss to happen when he safely comes off the wire so it’s extra special. Corey’s grandparents come from Ventura to see his big moment, but they’ve been worried since he hasn’t contacted them while he’s hidden away in the desert. Naturally, Nathan talks to them through a megaphone using Corey’s pre-recorded phrases after convincing Corey’s grandparents a suspicious man was on the loose in their hotel. Easy peasy.
Corey is finally rescued from his desert trailer on the big day of the wire walk, and Corey is introduced to Alt-Corey for the first time. “It’s me, Nathan,” says Alt-Corey to his non-spackled counterpart. “You knew?” Corey is surprisingly amenable to the plan, including the part where he makes out with Jasmine, and Alt-Corey takes to the wire while Corey’s grandparents watch in astonishment from below. It’s difficult enough to walk on a wire between buildings, and Nathan’s intense practice shows in the result, with Nathan cross back and forth five times just for good measure. That Nathan does all this while wearing heavy make-up and a body suit is a truly astonishing feat. The crowd is duly impressed, as is Jasmine, who is waiting for the kiss she was promised when Corey emerges from the body-switch tent. She’s not the least bit suspicious of the switch and kisses Corey before he takes his victory lap.
As impressive as the whole experiment is, a superlative installment of Nathan For You has to also pack an emotional punch, and “The Hero” might be the show’s most poignant ending yet, with Corey reuniting with his loving grandparents and new “girlfriend” while Alt-Corey has the make-up removed from his face, and Nathan shuffles off into the distance. It’s Corey’s moment, and now he has to return to his own lonely life full of rejections from business owners who don’t even appreciate all the help he offers them. Nathan has longed to live in someone else’s skin, and he got the vicarious thrills of living as someone else, only to find out that a taste of the hero’s life isn’t quite enough.
- Seriously, how adorable are Corey’s grandparents? I usually don’t understand it when adults live with their forebears, but I can understand living with anybody who loves you as much as Corey’s grandparents love him.
- Nathan For You got a fourth season today. Huzzah!