Season 1, Episode 5, “Apocalypto”

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal
Photo: Courtesy of HBO

“Nathan has a problem with lying. He lies a lot.”

At this point in the season of The Rehearsal, Angela’s line feels less like an accusation and more like an understatement. And that’s before we spent much of the episode watching him convincing the young actor playing his make-believe-now-a-kid-again son Adam to pretend he’s attending swimming lessons when, in reality, he’s learning about Judaism behind Angela’s back. (In case you’d forgotten, Angela has very, very strong feelings about her faith, as we’re reminded almost every five seconds in this episode; honestly, if you made a drinking game around taking a shot every time she says Jesus you may not make it through the entirety of “Apocalypto.”)

But back to Nathan’s lying. We could likely say it’s gotten worse over the course of the season but then episode one ended with him rehearsing a confession of having forced someone to unwittingly cheat only to watch Fielder refuse to disclose that altogether and to offer a pat compliment instead. The Rehearsal is built, in concept and in execution, on a system of lies. It’s not just the authentic improv-like impersonations the rehearsals call for but also the many steps that lead to such performances (let us not forget his method of acting calls for some slight stalking).

The murky ethics of the entire enterprise is not for me to assess—though, perhaps you can guess where I stand—but that’s mostly because I’m less interested in such black-and-white discourse and more fascinated by the way the show so clearly wants us to have those conversations. For someone so fixated on how he comes across and carefully attuned to how people’s behaviors can be fine-tuned with enough practice if not with a simple awareness of how they’re going about their lives—not to mention someone who is literally scripting and directing these episodes—all of these moments of obliviousness cannot help but come across as building toward…a semblance of self-actualization, right?

“We don’t always get to choose what happens in life,” Fielder notes toward the end of the episode. “We do get to decide if we rehearse for it.”

The whiff of self-help rhetoric should give us all pause. Not because the idea of preparing for key events in our life is not a feasible approach toward self-improvement. But because rehearsing, for Fielder, feels like more of a crutch than anything else. Also, that royal “we” being used is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Very slowly, as we’ve learned, The Rehearsal has become less a show about helping a collective “we” (or a singular “they”) cope with what may happen in life but an excuse to allow Fielder to grapple with his own life decisions (and hangups and insecurities and anxieties). I’d say the show is a season-long play on the lengths straight men will go to avoid therapy, but that almost feels like a too flippant riff on that popular meme.

But then, how else to explain his decision to use Angela’s rehearsal as a place where he can avoid falling into the same “old habits” that plagued his previous relationships? I will say, him recognizing such patterns (while talking to his parents, no less!) and in the context of a show where he controls pretty much every single aspect of his environment (love that drone shot where you see the fake snow offering a visual sense of his insularity) was a moment that made me wonder if I shouldn’t think of Fielder as some Gotham villain-in-the-making (hey, he now owns his own HBO-funded bar!) and instead as a melancholy loner. But then, once that empathetic feeling flares up, I’m left thinking that he is still in control here. He has an entire cast at his disposal. A crew who have and will build him whatever he desires. The backing of HBO, even.

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal
Photo: Courtesy of HBO

I am curious, of course, to see how Fielder’s now self-involved project will come to an end. Is there yet another meta twist coming? Will we get to witness him learning something about himself many of his viewers (and critics and fans and reviewers and recappers) have maybe theorized already? Will this ouroboros of a docuseries eat itself as Fielder play-acts parenthood for no other reason than maybe he feels he should?

Are these too many questions? Should I be offering more trenchant critiques of a show that seems expressly designed to constantly enrage and engage its viewers? Perhaps. But for now I’d rather sit with my thoughts and keep wondering how Fielder is going to wrap this whole thing up.

Stray observations

  • Wanting to pivot away from a discussion about Judaism with a benign question like “What’s your favorite movie?” only to have Angela answer Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto(!) broke my brain. Is this a “you can’t make this up” moment? Because it was almost too perfect.
  • Such moments, whether scripted or not do get at one of the aspects of The Rehearsal I haven’t had a chance to dig into too much: This is a very funny show. Sure, its humor is sometimes very cringey and most definitely feeds off a sense of discomfort in its viewers, but I do find myself outright cackling several times per episode. (The line “I watch Key & Peele!” had me howling, as did the makeshift Dr. Fart sketch which made me think Adam could grow up to become a great TGS staff writer.) And, however you feel about Nathan, he does make for a great straight man.
  • Okay, I know that had Fielder not decided to upend Angela’s rehearsal we’d likely have focused on it more, but it’s kind of bonkers how she barely adhered to the mock-reality of her parenting rehearsal, right? Right? It’s in those moments when I am left wondering what we might have learned about Angela and her approach to the rehearsal if the show allowed for more conventional talking heads/confessional moments. Instead, because she was constantly forced to play a role and only do so when Nathan was around, it was (as he points out in voice over) hard to tell when she was role playing and when she was actually (and truly) committed to the bit.
  • Also, can we give it up for Anna LaMadrid, who really nailed her performance as Fake Angela? I need these various actors to find a way to turn their perfect impersonations into better gigs.

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