The Rehearsal Is A Window Into A Neurodivergent World

This article contains spoilers for the first five episodes of "The Rehearsal." 

People are baffled by "The Rehearsal." The series is ostensibly a comedy, though it often delves into dark subject matter and existential misery, and its reality show elements have left many viewers wondering about the moral implications of it all. The HBO series follows comedian Nathan Fielder as he offers to help people prepare for challenges in their life by rehearsing them beforehand. In the first few episodes, Fielder seems like a master manipulator who isn't giving people a chance to rehearse out of the goodness of his heart, but because he gets some kind of sick sociopathic glee from watching people feel uncomfortable. There's so much more beneath the surface, however, as the series begins to focus more on Fielder as it progresses, and becomes a story about feeling like everyone else is operating on a completely different wavelength. 

I have a full alphabet's soup worth of mental health diagnoses, and as a result, I don't always pick up on certain social cues or rules that others consider common knowledge. My ADHD makes me sensitive to rejection, but I'm also a social disaster. I've rehearsed situations a million times in my head before walking into them, and while I've seen this survival tactic in action in fiction, "The Rehearsal" makes it into a surreal meta-experience. Fielder is giving other people a glimpse into a neurodivergent world, where rehearsals are an instinct that gets us accused of being manipulative, heartless, or worse. By the end of the fifth episode, it's clear that the true subject of the experiment is Fielder himself, trying to reconcile his need for control with the fact that humans are ultimately unpredictable. 

Control isn't always the answer

I had no previous experience with Fielder's work before diving into "The Rehearsal," after hearing that it was something extraordinary. In the first episode, Fielder sets up the rehearsal conceit and helps a middle-aged teacher named Kor Skeete rehearse an uncomfortable conversation he wants to have with his friend on a local trivia team. Skeete has let his friend believe that he had a master's degree for years, but he really only has his bachelor's. He wanted to feel smart around his new, highly-educated friends, but now that they're all closer the lie nags at him. 

Skeete is earnest, vulnerable, and awkward, and Fielder's detached attempts to help make him look nearly sociopathic. Fielder tries to "help" Skeete win at trivia the night of the conversation by feeding him information secretly for weeks. When he comes clean about this to Skeete's double during a rehearsal, the trivia fan is heartbroken. He tells Fielder that he's a "horrible person," and while there is some cringe comedy to be mined from the whole situation, it also seems to trigger a change in Fielder. (He decides not to come clean to the real Kor.)

Rehearsing reality is about control. Just as an actor rehearses to perfect their movements and actions before performing in a play, some neurodivergent people rehearse potentially stressful interactions to work out the kinks beforehand. The first time I ever saw this portrayed was on the series "Community," when Abed (Danny Pudi) uses the "Dreamatorium" to simulate situations and rehearse how he might react to potential problems. He eventually learns that he can't control everything (and everyone), and he learns some healthier coping mechanisms. Likewise, "The Rehearsal" follows Fielder as he realizes that no amount of control will ever make him feel like he belongs. 

From puppeteer to test subject

Among Fielder's staged rehearsals is one created for Angela, a woman who wants to raise a child but isn't sure if she could do it as a single mother. Fielder arranges for her to "raise" a series of child actors in a beautiful house, letting her live there and having her "son," Adam, grow up a few years every few days. In order to test her concerns about doing it on her own, he also arranges for Angela to have a partner, Robbin, but when Robbin realizes the commitment to absurdity he's made, he bails. 

Fielder steps in himself to co-parent, and that's when things get weird. His attention is torn between helping Angela take care of Adam and running the other rehearsals, and there are faux-tragic results. After encouraging the teenage actor playing 15-year-old Adam to talk to a friend of his with an absentee father and base his performance on his friend's experience, Adam has a fake overdose. It's deeply unsettling, even knowing it's fake, and it makes Fielder abandon the rest of the rehearsals. 

In that moment, the series stops being about the people around Fielder and starts being about his inability to relate to them. He's not sociopathic, because he clearly wants to understand. He rehearses the rehearsals, hiring actors to play some of the real people involved so he can try to do his best. In episode five, when Angela's hardline Christianity and Fielder's insistence that they raise Adam with both Jewish and Christian traditions finally causes her to quit, Fielder decides to continue the rehearsal on his own, staying with the child actors on his own. 

A perspective on perspectives

I haven't seen the full season, but in Lex Briscuso's review of the series for /Film, she details the genius of a reality show with the kinds of character arcs worthy of the best fiction. "We love character development in our fictional narratives," Briscuso writes, "character development in the real world, so to speak, is just as compelling, satisfying, and purposeful."

If someone were to judge Nathan Fielder and "The Rehearsal" entirely upon the first two episodes, they would likely write him and the series off as cruel and misanthropic, but his missteps at the beginning are necessary for him to grow and change throughout the series. Likewise, many neurodivergent people might be written off too easily by neurotypical individuals who assume more sinister intentions for benign actions. For example, it seems like Fielder really never meant to hurt Skeete, and his harsh rebuke seems to linger throughout the rest of the season as Fielder re-examines not only how he views other people, but how he thinks other people view him.

Turning the camera around

The lines between fantasy and authenticity are often blurred in reality television, and "The Rehearsal" takes the concept to another level. I've written before about how fiction helps me process reality, and having talked to other neurodivergent folks, that tends to be a theme. Fielder has created his own fiction in order to understand reality, and realized that unfortunately there's no substitute for authentic interactions. "The Rehearsal" is heady and existential and sometimes deeply uncomfortable, but so is trying to make sense of a world that's based on someone else's rules. That's why some of the subjects struggle just as much trying to follow the rules of Fielder's world.

Our cultures, experiences, and brain chemistry all shape us, and sometimes we can be too quick to judge based on our own standards. "The Rehearsal" and reactions to it are a not-so-gentle reminder that we all view the world through very different perspectives and have to be willing to interrogate our own beliefs, biases, and flaws if we're ever going to grow. By turning the camera around on himself, Fielder made his gonzo reality comedy series into something much more profound.

New episodes of "The Rehearsal" debut Fridays on HBO and HBO Max.