I shouldn’t begin a recap—of a pilot episode, no less!—by discussing its final moments. But given that I’ve not been able to shake them off since I first watched The Rehearsal’s first outing, I feel the need to start there. It’s the only way I’ll be able to begin unraveling how to approach this most curious of shows.
But first, some background: The Rehearsal, HBO’s latest non-fiction series (“docuseries” and “mockumentary” aren’t apt descriptors, though you may well call it those, too) revolves around Nathan Fielder (of Nathan For You fame) helping out regular folks navigate pivotal moments in their lives. Only by “navigate,” he means “treating their life as a put-on play that can be perfected by grueling rehearsals.” If that sounds a tad too abstract, one need only see how this works in the show’s premiere episode. Kor is a Brooklyn teacher who has been living a(n albeit white) lie for too long: His trivia team all believe he’s got a Master’s degree, a fib he told long ago and one that he’s never been able to come clean about. Until now. Enter: Nathan.
What if Kor could practice that disclosure and work through every and all permutations of how that conversation could go? What if the venue could be replicated, his interlocutor cast, and his every bit of dialogue workshopped until Kor could know and anticipate every kind of twist the interaction could take? As an intellectual exercise, Nathan’s proposal (and execution, for that is exactly what he and his crew end up doing for Kor) is fascinating. I’ll admit that my first thought was, “Oh! Synecdoche, New York is finally getting its due in our cultural imagination!” (Admittedly, that’s a sentence too few folks will find intelligible given the quiet footprint of that most ambitious Charlie Kaufman project.) But the more I watched Nathan and Kor work through the kinks of his confession—he’s most worried about how one of his trivia teammates, Tricia, will react to his news, at times suggesting he’s scared of things getting violent—the more I began to wonder about the ethical and moral implications of this endeavor.
To be fair, the show does not shy away from this question. During Nathan’s first interaction with Kor, he openly tells him that he’d rehearsed that conversation with a “Fake Kor” he’d hired to play the role. It’s a small moment where you’re first confronted with how someone may react to this underhanded way of having, in not so many words, manipulated a two-person conversation. The power imbalance is gestured toward but never quite interrogated, even as Kor slowly finds himself further coerced into cheating at his trivia game in subtle but decidedly intentional ways.
This brings me to the final moments of the episode. (So I guess I didn’t start this recap with them after all?) There should be a wistful and celebratory air to the conclusion of Kor’s story: Despite his anxiety and his misgivings and even his hangups (see: the fact that he wouldn’t put this personal confession above his trivia game), the conversation goes without a hitch and he and Tricia bond in ways that hadn’t ever before. There should be a bow tied around the entire experience. Only The Rehearsal has a more nuanced approach to its premise.
At the end of the episode, Nathan, presumably guilty about pushing Kor into cheating, decides to come clean. He confesses what he’s done and waits patiently to see how this person he’s spent so much time with will react: Only the reaction we get is not from Kor but from “Fake Kor,” who absolutely loses it, capturing the kind of woundedness we wouldn’t be surprised to find from real Kor. And then we switch back to Nathan who opts instead to not follow that path and he decides to compliment real Kor instead, arguably sanding down the more unsavory aspects of the episode and their interactions.
That’s the moment where The Rehearsal hooked me. As a haunting rendition of “Pure Imagination” plays us out into the episode’s credits, Fielder’s show establishes a darker and even insidious tone to what at first seemed like a good samaritan proposition. Maybe Fielder is, as Kor had unwittingly dubbed him, a “Willy Wonka” character—an imaginative and manipulative trickster who may be more of a villain than he’d like to admit. If the show can truly plumb this darkness (how does Kor feel now that he’s presumably seen the episode in full and learned about how Fielder tricked him?), I think we’ll have something very special in our midst.
- Seriously, I cannot stress enough how much you need to watch Synecdoche, New York if the prospect of using theater as a way to improve/workshop your life is at all alluring to you. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, and Emily Watson are just divine in this meta-meditation on the role art-making can take in an artist’s life (and the ways in which the porousness between what’s real and what’s imagined—what’s staged, really—can lead you to wholly lose yourself in the process).
- The attention to detail when it comes to the set design and set dressing in this episode (and I imagine we’ll encounter this in future episodes as well) is just beyond. And thankfully, Fielder calls it out during the episode itself, showing how his crew had gotten the right condiments and even made sure that lone balloon in the corner got its due. But I also want to spotlight the on-the-fly improv work of the two actors who were recruited to play “Fake Tricia” and “Fake Kor” (Gigi Burgdorf and K. Todd Freeman, respectively). Theirs is not an easy task and so much of The Rehearsal hinges on their abilities to make their made-up interactions feel plausible. They’re truly the unsung heroes of this episode.
- Much as he did with Nathan for You, The Rehearsal hinges on our ability to, if not identify, then at the very least, be willfully guided by Fielder and to key into his off-kilter sensibility. Except “off-kilter” doesn’t quite get at it. His clipped, awkward, and borderline cringe-worthy demeanor is both disarming and unsettling. He constantly wants you to be in that space where you’re engaged but wary, at the edge of your seat while wondering why the hell you sat there in the first place. It makes sense why this rehearsal set-up works for him. As he confesses to Kor early in the episode, such workshopping helps him better sand down whatever might be off-putting about his sense of humor and allow him to ingratiate himself better with those he meets. After every new set-up in Nathan For You, I always wondered what those who’d agreed to be helped by him thought of the entire enterprise, of the episode, of the premise of the show as a whole. I’m curious if at any point we’ll see the fourth wall break down in these “rehearsals.” There must be scenarios that can’t be multiverse’d to death, surprises that not even a full crew can anticipate. What happens when someone stops playing along?