“I Came Out A Believer,” Molly Lambert’s Grantland piece from 2014, remains the closest thing to a proper, thorough accounting of the lasting impact of Nathan For You on the entrepreneurs who have appeared on it. As much as Nathan Fielder’s surreal format borrows from the “small business makeover” reality subgenre, Nathan For You has never fully incorporated the where-are-they-now segment shows like Shark Tank thrive on. But that’s the consequence of splitting the difference between cutting satire and sincere homage the way Nathan For You does. Real business improvement shows are all about the future, the theoretical success awaiting the business when they implement common-sense resolutions. Nathan is purely ephemeral, hence Lambert’s frustration in trying to cold-call Nathanized businesses where the employees can barely identify the show she’s describing, let alone quantify the “Nathan For You effect.”
“Nathan For You: A Celebration,” the one-hour special kicking off NFY’s fourth season, doesn’t attempt to compete with Lambert’s piece or to prove that the show has had any long-term benefit to its participants. And honestly, that special probably isn’t possible, given the wide range of reactions an appearance on NFY elicits from its featured guests. Just as Nathan isn’t a regular small-business makeover show, “Celebration” isn’t a regular update show. It’s a new episode of the show featuring some old faces, and it spends more time looking forward than backward. And it deepens Nathan’s delusions of grandeur. He embarks on his fourth season of adventures as convinced as ever that his biggest personal shortcoming is his tendency to give too much of himself despite getting little to nothing in return.
The show’s format takes getting used to, since the idea of a NFY lookback show conjures up every fan’s list of favorite NFY segments. Or hell, not even favorite segments, just a collection of people whose well-being we’d like updates on. Did Nathan’s “Dumb Starbucks” employees wind up dating after he gave his blessing? Have there been any long-term health benefits from Daniel Ashikian’s infant urine regimen? And speaking of urine, has Nathan had anymore bromantic adventures with Brendan, the guy whose liquid waste he stole in the name of friendship? We may never know, because “Celebration” is a prix fixe meal with no substitutions. The returning guests aren’t necessarily the most memorable or interesting ones, but rather the ones willing to consciously court the insanity they once stumbled into by accident.
No wonder “Celebration” is hosted by Anthony Napoli, one of the few NFY participants to be approached as a temporary employee rather than the benefactor of Nathan’s dubious “assistance.” For Napoli, hosting “Celebration” is a job that could lead to bigger opportunities, though it doesn’t seem like his career got much of a bump from his season one appearance as the host of Nathan’s dating competition, The Hunk. But he’s a good sport, now as ever, and serves a vital role in “Celebration” as the Chris Harrison-style talking head whose main responsibility is to act as if there’s nothing ridiculous about the show he’s hosting. Napoli quickly recaptures the crackling rapport he and Nathan shared during the Hunk filming and winds up deepening the relationship. He also corrects the record: The threesome referred to in his original appearance was not with two men, as Nathan told his potential soulmates, but with a mother-daughter pair. Y’know, for whatever that’s worth.
With each new segment comes another opportunity for Nathan to change people’s lives using his ingenuity and extensive experience as an industry disruptor. He first checks in with Sue Sebastian, the realtor whose popularity was goosed by Nathan’s efforts to rebrand her as L.A.’s biggest broker of poltergeist-free homes. Shit gets real in a hurry when a call to Sebastian reveals that Ron Bard, Sebastian’s psychic sidekick, passed away sometime after co-starring in a sizzle reel for a Ghost Realtor series. Life goes on and so does Sebastian, who has since teamed with a new psychic teammate named Joshua Darnall. When Darnall says he can communicate with Bard over the ol’ celestial courtesy telephone, Nathan can’t resist calling him on it, then turning the moment as awkward as possible. In case anyone was worried, Darnall says his predecessor trusts him to carry on the important work he and Sebastian started together.
Kyle Heitz didn’t become one of NFY’s most memorable guests in his first appearance as a teenage poster vandal in season one. He’s more likely to leave an impression after his latest segment, in which Nathan stops spoofing Tabatha Takes Over just long enough to spoof Beyond Scared Straight. According to Nathan, Heitz has turned his life around, which presumably means Heitz’s days of drawing penises on promotional materials are long behind him. He now has a girlfriend he’s really excited about, judging from both Heitz’s words and his, um, tongue-forward PDA. He’s out here hustling, selling vape cartridges door-to-door to businesses that don’t seem like they would buy such a product from anyone, let alone Heitz. But look, he’s a young, hungry entrepreneur trying to take his business to the next level, so Nathan is all too eager to turn his one-time adversary into the latest NFY success story. In sales, image is everything, so Nathan takes Heitz to a dermatologist to get his pornographic forearm tattoo transformed into a slightly less pornographic forearm tattoo.
The best segment belongs to Corey Calderwood, whose life and likeness were absorbed by Nathan in season three’s epic finale, “The Hero.” Calderwood’s journey is the most recent new installment of NFY, and because the episode spent so much time with him, he’s a genuinely welcome guest. Did Nathan’s tightrope walk have a lasting impact on Calderwood’s life? The answer is an unqualified “Um...kinda I guess?” He’s finally out of his grandparents’ place, which is a step up, and he even has a new girlfriend. Sadly, that means things didn’t work out with Jasmine, the young woman Nathan selflessly courted while buried under a thick layer of prosthetic makeup. While Calderwood was all too eager to get a few congratulatory kisses after the tightrope walk, he also didn’t want to start out a new relationship based on lies. (That’s probably a generous summary of the aftermath, but let’s not pull at that thread.) The tomboyish Lily seems a better fit for Calderwood anyway, and he can feel confident that she’s really into him and is not just another crazy aerial-tightrope groupie.
“Celebration” has a certain “neither fish nor fowl” quality to it that makes it occasionally frustrating. But it works as a full-length teaser for the upcoming season, and it goes far enough beyond that to work decently enough as a standalone episode. Revisiting the past isn’t Nathan’s strong suit. He only knows how to shuffle forward with his awkward, poorly postured gait.
- As usual, Brian Wolfe shows up and steals the show after Nathan unearths the softcore pornography Wolfe mentioned during “The Movement.” Turns out it was a bit more extensive than Wolfe let on, and he’s initially reluctant to claim credit for the work of “Kory Wolf.” But he finally cops to it, leading to a detailed description of what it means to be “medium hard.”
- Summit Ice has blossomed into a bona fide success, and Nathan is able to hand over a $150,000 donation to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
- The biggest surprise laugh comes from Nathan’s “trip to Vancouver” segment, with its goofy sequence of establishing shots that don’t establish much more than the ability to access American brands in Canada.
- The Ghost Realtor show is actually a really good idea and I’m not sure why someone hasn’t managed to mash up the paranormal and house-hunting reality genres.
- I loved the overdressed set for the interview segments, which is a pretty hilarious and perfect play on the reality-reunion set design and its random bric-a-brac.
- Season four looks pretty insane.