Among the most clever things about Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is that its very structure, along with the secrecy behind how Fielder and company produced the docu-comedy, makes it almost entirely analysis-proof. We just know so little about which parts are real, which parts are not, what happened that we did not see, and how much more empathetic Fielder may be than the version of himself he plays here (and before that, on Nathan For You). As a result, The Rehearsal becomes a comedic Rorschach Test. You see what you want to in it. You bring your own conspiracy theories to it. Any aspect of the show that does not conform to the opinion you’ve already built about it can be reinterpreted to support, rather than undermine, your argument.
Which is why some Rehearsal viewers consider the first season finale, “Pretend Daddy,” as another example of Fielder’s singular filmmaking genius, while others — this one included — turned off the episode with a bad taste in their mouths.
Let’s back up. If you’re reading this, you almost certainly understand what The Rehearsal is — or, you understand as much as it is possible for anyone who does not work on The Rehearsal. But it’s worth discussing one more time before getting into what appeared to go awry in the finale. Fielder, whose on-camera self has long struggled with interpersonal interactions, offers to help people prepare for difficult conversations and life experiences by constructing elaborate dry runs for the real thing. He helps a man prepare to confess a minor lie to a longtime bar-trivia teammate, helps another get ready to confront his brother about a dispute over their grandfather’s will, and — in the season’s major story arc — builds a 24/7 role play experience for Angela, a single woman debating whether she wants children.
With The Rehearsal, it seems impossible to tell where fact ends and fiction begins. Fielder and the rest of the creative team (he directed the finale, and wrote it with Carrie Kemper and Eric Notarnicola) appeared to be pulling back the curtain at every turn, but were they? We saw the method used to constantly swap out all the actors playing Angela’s would-be son Adam, as a way to comply with child labor laws. And in the season’s creative high point, “The Fielder Method,” we not only saw how Nathan recruited and trained new actors to appear in the rehearsals, but got to know a few of them well enough that we would recognize them when they reappeared later in the season, to more clearly delineate artifice from genuineness. But the very design of the show made it easy for viewers to latch onto the idea that Angela was herself an actor. And even “The Fielder Method” blurred the lines of the show’s reality by having Nathan arrange for one of his actors to more deeply impersonate a real person, followed by Nathan impersonating the actor learning to impersonate the real person, another actor impersonating Nathan giving the actor instructions on how to impersonate the real person, and on and on.
For many viewers (I was one of those), the sheer, absurd scale of the fictionalized world Nathan created was hilarious regardless of which parts were true and which were wholly scripted. For others, the idea that any of it might be real — that Fielder might be playing with people’s lives on a deeper and more intimate level than the terrible business ideas he proposed on Nathan For You — was disturbing. And no matter which side of the yea/nay divide people found themselves, it was hard to find agreement about what percentage of it, if any, should be taken at face value.
Which brings us to “Pretend Daddy.” The previous episode ended with Angela quitting the project, in part because she realized Nathan had transformed this parenting rehearsal so it would primarily be about him, in part because she began to fear — not without reason — that the show was presenting her in a way that would lead to mockery. The finale opens with “Adam” celebrating his ninth birthday — in one more example of the series’ appealing lunacy, Nathan fills the party with background extras to save $15,000, not realizing that union rules forbid any of them from speaking while cameras rolled — while Nathan says goodbye to all the actors who played the six-year-old Adam. One of them, Remy, sobs at the notion of leaving, or even of changing out of his wardrobe. Remy’s mother Amber explains that Remy does not have a father and has grown sensitive on the subject of dads. Remy understands just enough of what is happening on The Rehearsal to call Nathan his pretend daddy, but insists, “My pretend daddy loves me!”
This scene, and the ones that follow of Nathan attempting to both rectify the situation with Remy and to figure out how he allowed it to happen, becomes yet another ink blot moment regarding the show, but a much more intense one — not to mention one that pushed parts of the audience over the line from adoration to severe discomfort.
Again, there are things we know and things we do not know about any of how this show is made. It is possible that every single thing we see is exactly how events unfolded, and that everyone other than the people explicitly labeled as actors are being their genuine selves. It is possible that every last bit of it is scripted, and that anyone buying into any of it is probably also a pro wrestling mark. More likely, the truth lies somewhere in the vast middle. The real Nathan Fielder, for instance, simply has to be more self-aware than his TV alter ego in order to make a show as introspective and as frequently insightful as this one. So it’s not all true. And several participants of earlier episodes have given interviews confirming some or all of how they were portrayed, so it’s not all trickeration.
Then there is Remy. You can interpret the story, and its implications, any number of ways. Was the adorable, fart-loving boy asked to cry to help set up the season-ending storyline? If not, was Fielder really surprised that a fatherless child might grow so attached to the man who had played his dad? Did the producers anticipate this as a potential outcome but go ahead anyway, because they thought it might make good television? Whether planned or unplanned, was Fielder using Remy’s meltdown as a way to comment on the business of child acting, in the same way “The Fielder Method” could be read as a satire of method acting? Would Remy soon get over his time with Nathan, or will The Rehearsal become a recurring therapy subject for the rest of his life? And should what happened with Remy simply be shrugged off as more fodder for entertainment in the vein of the numerology-obsessed man who preceded Nathan as Angela’s faux co-parent?
Most of these questions cannot be definitively answered without far more knowledge of the production than any of us have, and the question of how this might or might not affect Remy could take years to know. But with all due respect to the world of child acting, no kindergartner is capable of pretending to be as upset as Remy was in several moments of the finale. And he is in that precarious age for the project where he’s old enough to grasp some superficial parts of what is happening, but not all of them. (The finale contrasts him with Liam, the actor playing nine-year-old Adam, who clearly has some acting training and is aware at all times that Nathan is just his scene partner. And the babies and toddlers would just be oblivious to the whole thing.) Yes, the whole child actor industry — and, for that matter, the reality TV industry — is fraught with unethical behavior that can inflict lifelong damage. But that should not be used as an excuse to play mind games with other kids, especially when the project does not involve wholly scripted scenes performed in short bursts, but fully immersive improv that lasts for hours each day. It’s not hard to believe that this would hit a kid Remy’s age — and with Remy’s particular family dynamic and emotional life — much harder than it would an older boy like Liam, never mind all of the adults involved in the series as either subjects or actors. No matter how much of the bar trivia story may have been true, the two people involved are not at risk of having the experience imprinted upon their psyches in a way that a small child is.
In a later scene, Nathan visits Remy and Amber’s house to play with him and continue the work of transitioning from father figure to friend. What we see of their interaction is a bit of a roller coaster. Remy at times calls Nathan “daddy” and cries again at the thought of him leaving. But at the end of the visit, he cheerfully calls out, “Bye, Nathan!” while his mother — who seems to believe that she made a mistake signing Remy up for all this(*) — assures him, “You can still love him and he’ll be our friend.”
(*) The Angela rehearsal also begins as something where the kids are pretending to be raised by a single mother. Then at a certain point, Nathan steps in as the dad, and finally Angela is gone and Nathan is the only fake parent in the house. One episode shows Nathan calling the parents of some of his child actors to ask if they are okay with him joining the experiment. If all of these interactions are real — again, a big if — then it suggests Amber volunteered Remy for this when he was just going to be playing with another single mom like her, but also that there was a moment where she was told about the addition of a fictional father and opted to continue, perhaps not realizing until after the fact how her son would respond to this change. It’s a situation where everyone’s intentions could be noble, none of theirs could be, or — say it with me — somewhere in between.
Perhaps any potential damage is undone by Nathan and Remy’s post-show playdate. Kids are resilient; over the weekend, Remy’s grandmother tweeted that “he’s doing amazing.” (She also pointed out that he had just celebrated his actual sixth birthday, meaning he was even younger during filming.) But The Rehearsal works because at least some of it is presented as real. Remy’s issues in the aftermath of his participation are not played for laughs, and rightly so. But the followup is — which becomes the other problem.
After visiting Remy, Nathan begins to question himself. “What on earth was I doing?” he asks, adding, “Everything about this rehearsal seemed so trivial.” He begins exploring ways he could have prevented himself from hurting Remy, though it soon begins to feel like his concern is less about the kid than about Nathan’s own suitability to be a parent — an extension of TV Nathan’s ongoing struggle to relate to other human beings. He tries silly things like having teenage actors cosplay as Remy. (In one of the season’s most ridiculous images, we see one of these fake Remys taking a smoke break outside of the house.) He revisits paths that might have avoided this mess. Would Angela staying, for instance, have solved the problem? He tries various rehearsals with the actress who has played Angela in the past, then apologizes to the real Angela, who quotes scripture as a justification to forgive him. Eventually, he goes back to visit Remy so that Liam can use the Fielder Method to learn how to play Remy, while Nathan in turn studies how to be Amber. Soon, the two are in character in a studio recreation of Amber’s home, Nathan wearing an outfit and makeup (and even a hand tattoo) identical to Amber’s.
A bit of this is an attempt to explore Amber’s culpability, as an actress playing her mother questions whether it’s a good idea to have Remy be on this show. Mostly, though, it is Nathan Fielder once again making himself the butt of the joke — literally at one point, as the season’s final shot is a glimpse of his ass crack as he stands up wearing low-rise women’s pants — by suggesting the entire show was a bad idea, and not just including Remy in it.
It plays, though, like Fielder trying to pivot away from the bad situation he unwittingly created, and to make it all feel like part of the gag. Maybe this was the only choice he could envision. This is a comedy show — albeit one with dramatic moments that may or may not be entirely phony — and a finale that showed Fielder fully out of character discussing the situation with the other producers would shatter the tone and fake reality of the series to such a degree that future seasons might be impossible to make. (HBO announced a second season renewal several hours before the finale aired.)
Things just feel different when you involve kids who have zero agency, and only slightly more capacity to comprehend the situation in which adults have placed them. Whether anyone in the production could have foreseen this exact scenario, they should have known that this format and small children were a potentially dangerous mix. It would have meant scrapping the parenthood rehearsal for some other season-spanning idea, but as we saw the the acting school and inheritance stories, there were plenty of workable concepts.
Even if you assume that everyone’s intentions were good, and they just screwed up — or even if you believe Remy and the other kids (including the ones who were given intense but conflicting religious instruction from Angela and Nathan) will ultimately emerge from this emotionally unscathed — the optics of it are ugly, and the way the finale responded to it made it feel even uglier.
And now I have fallen into the show’s trap, writing a few thousand words on a situation where there is a huge information vacuum. Perhaps I really am the sucker, Remy was the world’s greatest five-year-old thespian, Amber is herself an actor, each kid only interacted with Nathan for the small amount of time we saw them on camera during these episodes, and the finale is all part of a larger prank to bait people into acting outraged. To call back to one of the most famous Nathan For You stunts, we’ve got Dumb Critics instead of Dumb Starbucks. But the danger of creating a show that talks so much about what is real and what is rehearsed is that you train your audience to carefully examine every moment to figure out where the fiction begins. And the Remy material felt honest enough to me that it soured the entire experience of The Rehearsal. In the season’s final scene, Nathan-as-Amber tries to justify the mess he made by telling Liam-as-Remy that “Life’s better with surprises.” This particular surprise, though, is one that both Fielder and the audience may have been better off without.