At what point does a fake thing become real? Nathan Fielder reprises his career-long lampooning of this weighty philosophical inquiry with his new HBO series The Rehearsal, which finds the comedian/documentarian staging elaborate simulations of future situations to help ordinary folks prepare for life. (Or in some instances, recreating the immediate past for the sake of play-by-play research.) It’s to this end that he commissions the construction of a perfectly accurate replica of Williamsburg dive bar Alligator Lounge, all so that a trivia fiend can get a handle on how to come clean about a fib to a friend. During this surreal exercise, the bar is meant to foster the same atmosphere as the genuine article, even though the extras portraying the patrons don’t actually sip from the beers they lift to their lips.

Once it’s served its purpose, the bar turns back into a large empty set on a cavernous soundstage. Not wanting to part with such a pleasing use of HBO’s money, Fielder has the whole thing transported to a facility in Portland — the budgetary bump over his days on the Comedy Central cult hit Nathan for You is evident in the unprecedented excess and convolution with which he resolves even the simplest issues. Portland is where he’s set up a homestead where one of the most irritating human beings in the history of unscripted television can practice motherhood. In need of companionship, Fielder has an absurdly lengthy corridor erected to connect the warehouse’s front door to that of the bar, then rebrands it “Nate’s Lizard Lounge” for legal and existential reasons. Never mind that it’s staffed by pupils from the Method acting school Fielder starts in Los Angeles to promote his literal-minded approach to empathy by way of absolute imitation; if real people walk in, pay for drinks with real money, and have real conversations, can the room they’re standing in be considered a real bar?

The Rehearsal

This is the most potent, poignant symbol in six episodes densely packed with them, as Fielder is constantly confronted with the limitations of his inspired inauthenticity. In “Finding Frances,” the unexpectedly moving finale to Nathan for You, the often-detached “Nathan” character (or is he a character?) comes into focus as a lonely, anxious man contriving hoaxes and fakeouts as a confused way of grasping at sincere connection. This tendency links him to his closest kindred John Wilson, who spent an episode of his own HBO show (which Fielder produces) figuring out that he could protect his favorite chair by wrapping it in plastic while his cat destroys an identical decoy. But The Rehearsal plumbs deeper emotional chasms, even as it grows more baroque in its reflexivity, with Fielder’s vulnerabilities buried under several layers of metatext. He’s like a prankish disciple of Caden Cotard, the obsessive theatre director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York, who erects an entire second Earth within an infinite warehouse for a production of demented ambition.

Though the broad conceptual strokes of Fielder’s latest coup can be traced back to Nathan For You — the eerie doubling of “Smokers Allowed,” the ersatz spontaneity belying meticulous control of “The Anecdote” — he’s breaking ground in his willingness to engage with his own conflicted ethics. His deceptive methods have drawn criticisms of cruelty in the past for casting his subjects as dupes not in on the joke he’s making at their expense. He’s mounted his rebuttal in the press, but it’s almost redundant in light of the harsher self-scrutiny embedded in The Rehearsal. As he antagonizes or outright lies to his collaborators for the sake of the bit, he runs projections in which surrogate actors lash out at him to see how it’ll make him feel. He repeatedly opts out of any culpability that would put him closer to the truth, and reveals the bullying, underhanded edge of his ostensible assistance to be part of a deeper, more pathos-rich text.

Showing Up

Fielder’s deadpan stoicism isn’t only a go-to mode for cringe comedy, but also the expression of a person who can’t or won’t find it within themselves to empathize, either too frightened or too comfortable in a safe remove. As in Nathan for You, he approaches his marks offering his services as workarounds for the intractable problems of existence, and leaves the audience to decide how earnestly he wants to help. The final episode has been withheld from press, giving him enough room for one last grasp at redemption through the transparency from which he’s tactically shied away. As ever, it’s a matter of deciding to allow oneself to be honest and then see how things go from there — more easily typed than put into practice, of course. The notion that anything would be more doable for Fielder than having a candid conversation forms the overarching tragicomic gag in this thicket of crafty put-ons. Men (or at least this one) will spend thousands of dollars enveloping their home in a synthetic winter to bring about a faux Hanukkah in an effort to organically raise the subject of antisemitism instead of just talking.

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The Rehearsal begins airing July 15 on HBO, with episodes also available to stream on HBO Max.

Charles Bramesco is a freelance film and TV critic living in Brooklyn. A former staff writer for Rolling Stone, his work has been featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Guardian, and many...