Nathan For You: “Liquor Store/Exterminator/Car Wash”
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Nathan For You: “Liquor Store/Exterminator/Car Wash”

Hotel Excellence Awards: Only the finest hotels get them

Nathan For You hits its most memorable peaks when its premises spiral off in unexpected directions, and none of tonight’s experiments achieve that—once the plans have been established, they play out largely as expected, to the polite bemusement from the business owners. That’s fine. If Nathan For You tried to reach the dizzying heights of the gas-rebate adventure or “Claw Of Shame” every time, the show would feel too manufactured. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver runs into this problem, for instance: It’s a quality show on the whole, but you can feel when the writers are ginning up some extra zaniness to help a segment “go viral,” and it inevitably comes off as forced. Better for Nathan For You to let its stunts play out naturally than to sacrifice its organic feel.

The hotel-awards ruse for Javier Arteaga’s pest-control business is the cleverest setup in tonight’s episode, even if it doesn’t get much a reaction from the public (except for the “Hotel With The Least Bed Bugs” award, which has the desired effect on the concerned bystanders). In fact, the overall indifference of the hotel guests only enhances the spectacle of Nathan’s misdirections and disguises. It’s amusing enough that Nathan dons hotel-maid drag and compels Arteaga to cram himself into the bottom of an ersatz cleaning cart; the scene is made even funnier by the fact that nobody is watching anyway.

The cameras are watching, though, and a central tenet of the show is that those electronic eyes have an astounding power to make people do Nathan’s bidding. Our host invokes that power explicitly as he negotiates with the hotel manager, who reasonably wants to compare prices (read: get Nathan the hell out of his office) before he signs anything. “You know, I have a TV show,” Nathan says, as if that fact were lost on the manager, “and on the show, we like to have happy endings.” He cajoles the manager to sign the contract “just for the cameras,” and the guy does so in the hope that his signature is the key to ending this meeting.

But Nathan doesn’t allow his marks to escape so easily (as this episode’s Little League fundraiser discovers when she repeatedly tries to reject Nathan’s sponsorship—and then his clumsy bribe). With the confidence of a bar-certified lawyer, he reminds the manager of language in the contract specifying that any request to sign the contract “for the camera” should be understood as “code for ‘Will you sign the contract in real life?’” From there, the conversation devolves to the point where the manager is arguing over whether this qualifies as a “trick” or not, and as long as the conversation is devolving, Nathan is winning.

The booze-ownership plan that Nathan concocts for Nabil Khalil’s Bouquet Plaza Liquor never generates much of a spark; the teenagers who get duped are too nervous and awkward to muster much more than a mumble, although one kid does get a bit feisty when he insists, “I don’t want to own the alcohol; I want the alcohol.” The refinement in this segment comes not so much from the stunt itself but by Nathan’s naïve interpretation of youth culture. Liquor store proprietor Nabil Khalil gets the ball rolling when he observes that kids tend to buy booze because they want to drink it; Nathan, pointing out that he’s “a bit closer to my teenage years than you are,” insists that these kids are all about image.

And Nathan has a particular image in mind: The “teen actor,” enlisted to drum up business at the local school, serves as a visual avatar for Nathan’s distorted concept of youth culture. This is a brief scene, but it exemplifies the quiet, underhanded genius Fielder employs to make people buy into inane ideas. Nathan’s understanding of the teenage mind—which, by his reckoning, revolves around the Internet, how much school sucks, and profanity—is already ridiculous on its face. But that silliness is immeasurably heightened when Fielder’s naive worldview is filtered through the confusion of his hapless accomplice. It’s essentially a mini-experiment to see what will come out of the actor’s mouth, and he doesn’t disappoint: “Hey man, what’s up. Hey dude, that Internet these days is so dope, man. School sucks, dude, you can just go on the stinkin’ Internet.” (My favorite detail: “these days.”)

The cramped coda in the liquor store’s back room extends the youth-culture theme with a fake basement meant to serve as photographic evidence of the teen boozers’ coolness. The place is decked out in posters that proclaim their generic enthusiasm for “ROCK MUSIC,” “SPORTS,” and sunglasses-wearing bikini babes (“OH YEAHHH!”). The kids pay little notice to the surroundings, though, probably hoping that if they continue to go along with Nathan’s game, maybe they’ll get a taste of that sweet moonshine.

Khalil, the store owner, likewise appears intent to simply ride out this storm until Nathan leaves, but his hopes for a quiet ending are dashed when a cop steps into the storage area to arrest him—and then whips his clothes off to display his true assets. The thing is, Khalil appears even more perturbed once the gag is revealed: He appeared to be less upset by the prospect of incarceration than he is by a gyrating man in a utility-belt thong. For a “businessman,” Khalil explains to Nathan, “a guy stripper, that’s not really going to be a cool thing to have.” Khalil really emphasizes the “businessman” angle, as if it’s the implications for his balance sheet that have Khalil shuffling nervously in that tiny room.

The car wash experiment sees Nathan weighing down a nearby tree branch with a variety of birds so that they might defecate on potential customers’ cars—making them perfect candidates for Los Feliz Car Wash’s “Bird Droppings Special.” The best moment of this segment comes early, when owner Amir Lankarani eagerly buys into Nathan’s theory that his office is a filthy mess “to make a point to your customers that you only care about cleaning cars.” Lankarani finds this to be such a perfect excuse for his slovenliness that he pretends he came up with it. That’s the kind of quick thinking you’d expect from someone with a full-size toilet bowl under his desk.

From there, though, Fielder has to carry too much of the action himself. While it’s enjoyable to watch Nathan scheme to delay cars under the bird-laden branch, or to take in his inordinately ceremonious employee-of-the-month ceremony, there’s only so much excitement he can generate as he plays off silent, befuddled reactions. Nathan For You can’t always get a rise out of the people sharing the screen with Nathan, and the producers appear to be fine with that. They’re right not to force it—it signals a commitment to the honest comedic ethos that underlies all of the show’s fakery.

Stray observations:

  • The gratuitous “CHINESE DRAGON RENTALS” scrim for the pest-control van is the cherry on top of that delightful sequence.
  • The surgeon’s mask concealing Nathan’s face in the maid uniform is another nice touch.
  • More inspired ad-libbing by Nathan’s undercover teen: “I can’t really read too much. I mean, I know the basic letters, but my friends tell me what it is.”
  • Nathan gives the hard sell to the Little League fundraiser: “We’d also be willing to offer a free bottle of gin to every kid in the league.” It’s a testament to that woman’s kindness and patience that she didn’t throw Nathan out right then—it took him greasing her palm with a fiver to finally push her into “Let me show you out…” mode.

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