The Rehearsal Review: Nathan Fielder Continues To Reinvent The Reality TV Wheel With Beautifully Cringe Results

Reality television has been done to death. We have every kind of series you could possibly want: dating, competition, slice of life, endurance and survival tests, finding a wedding dress, Real Housewives, Jersey Shore. The list goes on and on. Yet we are lucky enough to be watching television at the same time that Nathan Fielder — an incredibly awkward comedian responsible for the hilarious service show "Nathan For You" — is making it, as he continues to reinvent the reality wheel. He did it once before with his first series in 2013, where he would help business owners out of situations that were leading them to their potential demise. This time, he does it again with "The Rehearsal," a smart and savvy introspective reali-comedy that challenges our hearts and minds as it prepares us for life's most monumental eventualities. The show is a bit of surreal genius that reinvents our world as only Nathan Fielder can, with a dash of cringe, a touch of embarrassment, and an unexpectedly heavy dose of purity and heart.

"The Rehearsal" is a pseudo-reality series in which Fielder helps people navigate every possible outcome of a sensitive situation by meticulously planning for those eventualities in a heavily structured rehearsal where every detail is copied and an actor helps play out the prospects.

The show's first episode harkens back quite strongly to one of the best "Nathan For You" bits. In the season 3 episode "Smokers Allowed," Fielder concocts a scenario in which he finds a loophole to allow smoking at a local bar — as long as the happenings at the bar are "presented" as a performance. In "The Rehearsal," Fielder revisits a bar scenario when he helps out a man who has lied to his beloved bar trivia team about his higher education. Fielder constructs an exact replica of Brooklyn's Alligator Lounge to rehearse inside of and they ply it with patrons. The result is an immediate throwback to one of Fielder's past professional highs; It's hard not to compare.

The cringe king strikes again

Initially, that comparison between the opening episode scenario and the "Smokers Allowed" bit hits hard because of the nostalgia; "Smokers Allowed" was a great episode that really showed the "Nathan For You" machine running at its optimal prime, doing its best work. The beginning of the "The Rehearsal" arc immediately brings the viewer back to Fielder's first show and it reminds you why you liked Fielder's prickly, awkward comedy in the first place. That feeling bleeds into another: the cruel realization that this actually just makes you want to watch "Nathan For You" instead. However, that feeling doesn't last long enough to cheapen what "The Rehearsal" has to offer, thankfully. And it has so much to offer in just six episodes.

The core of the show, what makes it work more than any other element, is that as the episodes progress, we are treated to a much more mature side of Fielder showing a breadth of emotion he's never allowed an audience to see before. I use the word treated because it is, quite literally, a treat to watch, especially if you're coming into the experience as a fan of his comedy and the usual reservation that comes with that. There's a moment where Fielder is playing with a young child who is pivotal to the experiment set forth in "The Rehearsal," and in just a few seconds, the scope of sentiment and utter sweetness we see from him in reaction to this baby is unparalleled to anything he's given us on camera before. We love character development in our fictional narratives — character development in the real world, so to speak, is just as compelling, satisfying, and purposeful. Seeing Fielder here shows an exciting evolution in his work, one that clearly culminates in what "The Rehearsal" has done not only to his subjects but to himself.

Helplessly genuine and full of sincerity

Because of the emotional landscape Fielder is willing to navigate in "The Rehearsal," the show ends up giving audiences a catharsis that "Nathan For You" was never actually set up to deliver. It shows how much Fielder has grown as a creator and an artist, and how well subtle emotional life can be fused into his brand of comedy, which is known for being mostly devoid of that kind of deep feeling. In this way, the series is undeniably profound, showing both the growth of its creator and of its characters, or in this case, subjects, side by side. Like its predecessor, "The Rehearsal" is also helplessly genuine and full of sincerity, though "Nathan For You" was much quieter about that notion. Fielder has seemingly grown into a person and creator who is unafraid to lean into the emotions that make us human — which, really, is the exact kind of person who should be helming a project like "The Rehearsal."

Seeing Fielder put so much care and attention into this show makes me feel like a proud teacher watching their former student graduate. "Nathan For You" was entertaining, ballsy, and fun to watch, but Fielder has now made comedy that actually means something. It feels like the show of the summer, and it'll sneak up on you. You may not go into the series with strong feelings about it, but you'll come out of it changed. Fielder is great at coming up with wild concepts and making them realities, and there's no reason why he couldn't work similar magic on the core of our emotions. We're lucky to have this kind of raw, ridiculous, and real insight into the human condition.

"The Rehearsal" premieres July 15, 2022 on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.