The Rehearsal review: Life isn’t a rehearsal, except in this enthralling TV experiment

‘TV opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding? Submit video.” This is the entirety of the advertisement placed on Craigslist by Nathan Fielder’s team when looking for participants for his new TV show, The Rehearsal. The concept is simple: wouldn’t it be better if you could practise important life moments before they took place? The execution, though, is incredibly complex.

he first episode opens on Fielder meeting Kor, a teacher and table-quiz enthusiast from New York who has been lying to his bar-trivia team-mates about having a master’s degree for more than a decade. He now wants to come clean. So far, so good.

But before he even agrees to become the show’s first participant, Fielder reveals that he has practised their meeting dozens of times with an actor playing Kor, including the confession Fielder is currently giving. Not only that, but these rehearsals have taken place in a replica of Kor’s apartment based on a digital map of his home Fielder’s team created while posing as gas-company workers searching for a leak in his building.

The detail of the fake apartment is astounding. The title of every book in Kor’s bookshelf has been noted and added to the replica, giving Fielder the chance to joke about a specific one, safe in the knowledge he knows exactly where to find it. The scene cuts between Fielder’s real confession and the rehearsed interactions until we see the actor’s reaction perfectly mirroring Kor’s actual response. “This is what we could do for your lie,” Fielder excitedly explains. “This is the potential.”

Fielder’s team then construct a replica of the bar in which Kor plans to make his confession, with everything down to the specific torn material on individual bar stools recreated for authenticity, so they can rehearse every possible scenario with an actor who has covertly observed Kor’s friend to portray her accurately.

So begins The Rehearsal, one of the most bizarre and enthralling programmes ever aired. Fielder has developed a cult following in the last few years, mainly from his previous TV show, Comedy Central’s Nathan for You. In it, Fielder, equipped only with the claim that he “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades”, offers his advice to small businesses à la Gordon Ramsay in Kitchen Nightmares.

The show is a satire on the reality TV genre, with Fielder making increasingly bizarre suggestions throughout the show’s four-season run. Playing a heightened version of himself, he slowly develops the persona of a man desperately trying to find a human connection until it culminates in an attempt to reconnect a 78-year-old Bill Gates impersonator with his high-school sweetheart.

What started out as something like a prank show (the first episode sees Fielder convince the manager of a frozen-yoghurt shop to introduce a taste-accurate poo flavour, which he has commissioned a group of food scientists to develop) ends with an intensely profound, 84-minute-long exploration of love, regret and the nature of reality.

The Rehearsal takes these themes to the next level. It is somehow both utterly absurd and the next logical step in Fielder’s development as an artist. And make no mistake, this is art. While Nathan for You was obviously influenced by the anti-humour of Andy Kaufman, The Rehearsal is more closely aligned to Charlie Kaufman’s obsession with identity and truth.

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In the second episode, we meet Angela, a staunchly religious 40-something who is considering motherhood. Once again, The Rehearsal commits fully to the absurdity of the situation. Child-labour laws prevent the actors playing her fictional son Adam from portraying him around the clock and so they must be swapped every four hours, with the character ageing by three years once a week.

Fielder sets her up in her ideal home in rural Oregon and, while he attends to other rehearsals, her journey becomes the focus of the rest of the six-episode run. Originally merely the facilitator of this ridiculous and ethically dubious experiment, Fielder inserts himself as a co-parent when Angela’s attempts to find a partner are unsuccessful.

With Fielder now an active participant, he begins to wonder if the rehearsals can actually be effective preparation without the jeopardy of real emotions. And so he begins pushing everything as far as he can, with some participants breaking along the way.

Among other things, the show begins to examine the morality of its own existence. Fielder dives further and further into surrealism to make sense of his own actions.

The finale is appropriately heartbreaking, deranged and cathartic, before offering one final twist right at the buzzer. With HBO already confirming a second season, it’s impossible to tell where this bizarre social experiment will go next.

‘The Rehearsal’ is on Sky Comedy (Tuesdays, 9pm) and streams on Now TV

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