The Rehearsal is the most uncomfortable show ever made. Watch at your own risk.
Some shows never leave you. There’s a sneaky moment near the end of the first episode of Repetition – HBO’s new slippery hidden-cam comedy from serious Canadian Nathan Fielder – it’s as much a part of me now as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.
Fielder sits down with one of the show’s actual contestants, an easy-going 50-year-old black man named Kor Skeet, and admits to lying about something trivial — his coy delivery is the response from the mumblecore comedy. But when the camera switches to Skeet, the trivial lover has been replaced by an actor who looks a lot like him. The actor delivers a brutal disguise, and Fielder takes it shyly.
In the next shot, Skeet is Skeet again, warm if a little calm. The temporary overhaul is never recognized. Maybe it never happened?
It’s hard to describe RepetitionFielder’s wickedly ambitious sequel to his 2013 word-of-mouth hit Nat for you. It’s hard to describe because I don’t want to spoil a single disturbing bit of it, and because there’s nothing else quite like it. As on Fielder’s Comedy Central documentary series, the cast is mostly made up of non-actors. The comedian finds people on the brink of a difficult choice – from confessing an old secret to deciding to have children – and sets up a meticulously detailed, life-size “rehearsal” space so they can practice over and over again.
If that doesn’t sound funny to you, that’s because it largely isn’t. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and excruciating. But the concept is nice: human beings get better at things the more we do them, and Fielder wants to turn people into experts at their own puzzles. In a sense, Repetition is an antidote to the hidden camera comedies you’ve seen before, those – including Nat for youwhich saw Fielder come up with insane schemes for small business owners – who trade pranks and embarrassment.
Still, Repetition, always hovering on the edge of the knife uneasy of the exploitation, upsets the viewing. In the first episode, Fielder offers to help Skeet confess to a teammate that he’s been sprucing up his resume — a secret so delightfully mundane that the mere thought of “repeating” it will make you laugh. The Master of Controlled Chaos even builds a replica of the bar where everything is supposed to go down.
But Fielder, it follows, has his own predicament to repeat: He’s never asked anyone to be on this goofy show before. So, before meeting Skeet, he sends a team of “technicians” from a fake utility company to spy on Skeet’s house. He builds a replica of Skeet’s apartment and hires an actor to study Skeet’s videos and improvise in character. In a clever replay of the show’s setup, Fielder reveals he rehearsed every aspect, from the raucous banter as he walks through the door to the eventual admission that he once spied on the poor guy he wants to help. Yes, Fielder is leading this social experiment, but he is also its most passionate subject.
Part of what’s uncomfortable about watching the show is that Fielder himself seems uncomfortable doing it.
As a comedian, Fielder is thrilled to take a simple idea to its comedic extreme. The “decision tree” he makes for Skeet’s big reveal night is so cluttered with choices, arrows, and possible outcomes, that it’s mostly a visual gag. The fact that Fielder isn’t Oprah Winfrey, or even a Dr. Phil, still creeps uncomfortably around the corner. Once a participant has achieved their goal, as Skeet more or less does, they still have to put it all back on TV, where even Skeet will see the tampered flowchart.
Yet part of what makes watching Repetition so uncomfortable is how you regularly have to remind yourself that this isn’t selflessness, or even a true self-help show. The act of rooting for a TV character like Skeet is so seductive that the puppet strings connecting Skeet to Fielder’s control bar threaten to become invisible.
That’s why that final moment — the one where Fielder replaces Skeet with a hired doppelganger — is so unsettling. In the credits, I replayed the scene just to be sure it really happened. Fielder wants you to keep seeing the strings. He wants someone to call him a “horrible, horrible person” on TV. He knows he’s cheating people and part of what’s uncomfortable about watching the show is that Fielder himself seems uncomfortable doing it.
Except he’s not really uncomfortable with it, is he? Orchestrated Fielder Repetition, filmed it and put it on TV for the rest of us to laugh about. Maybe the real experience is on the edge of self-awareness, which the comedian seems to possess in unbearable mass – or maybe not at all. Because you can’t apologize in advance for the “awful, horrible” thing you’re about to do, not in a meaningful way. And just because the mad scientist is ready to connect with his own monstrous creation doesn’t mean he’s any easier on the eye.