“Finding Frances” is the final episode of Nathan For You. But it’s not hard to see the 80-minute special—which sees Fielder throw himself into helping Bill Heath, a guy he’d previously hired on multiple occasions to impersonate Bill Gates (despite, as we learn over the course of the special, not actually being a Bill Gates impersonator)—as the first real installment of The Rehearsal, too.
Some of the parallels are obvious: Worried that the emotionally erratic Bill might blow his chance to reconnect with the lost love they spend the special hunting for, Fielder at one point hires an actor so that his friend(?) can repeatedly rehearse their reunion beforehand. After a series of cringe-y moments, the rehearsal process seems to actually, shockingly, do exactly what it’s supposed to do—helping Heath have what seems like a genuine breakthrough about his feelings toward Frances, and what he’s searching for on this long, bizarre road trip.
But “Finding Frances” also sees Fielder shed the last of the artifice that normally kept Nathan For You planted strictly in comedy territory. While on the road with Bill, Fielder drops the broken robot affectations of the “Nathan Fielder” character, getting genuinely psyched for his companion when they finally track Frances down, and projecting real anxiety during the 15-minute phone call between Heath and his quarry that serves as the special’s climax. “Finding Frances” is about real human feelings in a way Nathan For You often flinched away from being, and the sight of Heath achieving something like closure on 50 years of regrets and recriminations, in real-time, is genuinely moving. And Fielder is right there, as emotionally invested as the viewer.
Probably. Because despite that catharsis, there are other, more uncomfortable parallels between “Finding Frances” and The Rehearsal, too.
During the penultimate episode of The Rehearsal’s first season, the actor playing Fielder’s subject, Angela, hits an extreme moment. In the midst of a simulated argument, she knocks over a lamp, then strides over to the show’s creator and demands of him the fundamental question of that series and the most painful portions of this one: “Do you want to feel something real?” It’s a shocking moment. It’s also an echo, deliberate or not, of the last scene of “Finding Frances,” when Nathan—quest complete—returns to Arkansas to bid the special’s other main character a farewell.
We’re speaking, of course, of Maci, a charming and cheerful escort whom Fielder hires to keep him company while he’s tooling around Arkansas hunting down 50-year-old high school yearbooks with a very odd old man. Fielder drops the curtain further yet in these scenes, even inviting Maci to watch episodes of Nathan For You itself. (Her verdict, not inaccurate: “You’re a little funny … kinda mean.”) A little awkward, a little flirtatious, the pair seem to get something genuine out of their limited relationship—which only serves to remind the viewer that both participants have a vested interest in creating the exact impression that that’s the case: Maci because it’s her job, and Fielder because he’s trying to make good TV.
Which brings us back to that last meeting. “It’s kind of weird having cameras around,” Maci says, after a little light banter. “We could turn them off, if you want,” Fielder responds, which garners a laugh. “Could we? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?” “What’s the purpose?” And then, for a moment, the easy cordiality freezes, and a little bit of hurt leaks into her voice. “You’re filming something. That’s kind of the purpose, right?” Fielder, silent, looks off into the distance. (“Is this silly? Or is this something I should take seriously?”) Looks down. (“Are you really trying to help me? Or am I the silly part that you’re talking about?”) Looks directly into the camera, for one brief moment. (“Do you want to feel something real?”) Looks away.
And then: “We do have this drone. It’d be cool to get a drone shot, maybe.” And so the camera pans out, showing the film crew that’s surrounding them, showing the park they’re sitting in, flying away until there’s nothing left for us to see at all. (“That’s sad. You never will. No matter how hard you try, you never will.”) And, let’s be clear: Nathan Fielder created the feelings that moment evokes, deliberately constructed his show to generate them—just as he generates the moments of pain or silliness that The Rehearsal chooses to broadcast. If the joke’s on him, it’s because he wanted to tell it that way. He wants us to ask that central question, whether it was improvised or scripted, “real” or “fake,” Nathan or “Nathan.” But that doesn’t guarantee that he actually knows the answers, either.