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In HBO's reality series 'The Rehearsal,' participants practice real-life scenarios

Nathan Fielder walks people through different tricky conversations and scenarios on <em>The Rehearsal.</em>
HBO
Nathan Fielder walks people through different tricky conversations and scenarios on The Rehearsal.

Nathan Fielder's HBO series The Rehearsal is hard to pin down. It's a comedy, but only in spots. Other times, it's unexpectedly touching, even dramatic. It's a reality show — maybe one of the most real reality shows I've ever seen — in capturing actual behavior. Yet it does so, much of the time, in absurdly unnatural, artificially created environments. And while Fielder has set up his new series as a scientific social experiment of sorts — trying to help people find the best ways to maneuver in a given situation — many times he's the one doing the learning, or becoming a subject in his own experiment.

In the premiere episode, Fielder places a very specific ad, targeted at people who have some issue they're trying to overcome. A 50-year-old teacher named Core Skeet replies, and his issue is that he's lied to a small group of friends for years, claiming to have had an advanced educational degree. Core wants to confess the truth to one woman in particular, but is afraid of her reaction.

Fielder's pitch, and the premise of his show, is that if you practice with a series of scenarios and variables, you can find the best way to proceed. In other words, you can prepare for this event with a series of rehearsals, then perform it for real.

The concept itself sounds absurd, and that absurdity is only magnified when Fielder uses HBO's significant program budget to go all in. Organizational flow charts break down the various possibilities. Actors are hired and coached to play, in rehearsals, the people the subjects will confront in real life. And entire sets are built where those practice sessions are staged — working replicas of homes, bars and restaurants where the real meetings eventually will occur.

It sounds crazy, but Fielder isn't out to make fun of the people in his shows; he's genuinely interested in helping them. And once each experiment in The Rehearsal begins, something strange and hard to explain happens. You really start to see patterns, flaws and obstacles to overcome. You see people. Real people.

I've seen five episodes of The Rehearsal. In addition to the teacher who wants to confess his falsehood, there's an episode about a man who wants his brother to release a grandfather's inheritance. Another features a woman who is afraid to commit to the responsibilities of parenthood and marriage. Not all of these experiments reach their natural or expected conclusions. Despite all of Fielder's meticulous planning and flow charts, there's a lot of chaos theory at play here.

The Rehearsal is unlike any TV show I've ever seen, and I'm not even sure I'd classify it as a comedy. But whatever Nathan Fielder is up to here, I'm fascinated by it.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.