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Is Nathan Fielder’s ‘The Rehearsal’ Exploitative?

Nathan Fielder’s new show has garnered some controversy. The question is: is his new show exploitative?

Credit: Conan/Youtube

The king of cringe is back on our screens and this time things are getting serious.

Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s ostensibly a reality TV show in which the Canadian comedian aims to help people plan important milestones in their lives. In actuality, however, the show plays out more like a unique social-experiment, dealing out plenty of discomfort in the process.

Nathan Fielder: The King of Cringe

Fielder’s career has been built upon the power of cringe. From his brief stint on the Canadian satirical TV show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, to his Comedy Central cult classic Nathan For You (2013-2017), the recurring theme is the comedian’s ability to cause maximum discomfort for audience and co-stars alike. The latter show, in which Fielder purports to help small businesses with unique ideas, marked Fielder’s break out project. The show was hugely popular, particularly amongst young males, and was a successful product for Comedy Central. Fielder managed to trend the line between his instinct to lampoon guests and empathise with them, resulting in a successful formula and his becoming a loveable lead.

Credit: ComedyCentral/Youtube

The Rehearsal

Fielder’s new show is a bit of a departure from Nathan For You. For a start, episodes are longer, with the first one clocking in at 44-minutes. The show looks great and extremely detailed plush sets have been constructed to support the show’s premise. That premise being that Fielder helps people ‘rehearse’ life-decisions and interactions that cause them anxiety. For example, the first episode revolves around a middle-aged man (Kor) who is scared to tell a fellow member of his trivia team that he lied about having a Master’s Degree. Fielder plans for every eventuality in his mandate to rehearse this situation, so he commissions an astonishingly exact like-for-like copy of Kor’s chosen location for the confrontation. This speaks to both the show’s lavish production and scope of its ambition.

Inevitably, given its unique nature, the show has been met with both plaudits and controversy. The question is, how justified is this?

Credit: HBO

Is The Show Exploitative?

The release of this show has been met with controversy in some quarters. Robbin Stone, who appeared in the show’s second episode, suggests that his personality and values were misrepresented in the edit. Though reviews have been broadly positive, words like ‘mocking’ have surfaced with regards to the comedian’s approach and Fielder’s intentions are far from altruistic. Of course, aim of the game is to make people laugh and to garner ratings and good viewership. There is something fascinating in Stone’s feeling of frustration. In the first episode of the show, Fielder draws attention to his control over the narrative of the show. He highlights that the show is still an artificial picture of the real world by swapping the real Kor for an actor he employs as Kor’s stand-in (for his own ‘rehearsal’). He’s reminding us that he is pulling the strings.

Fielder and his team are responsible for any of the portrayals included in their show. They chose to include certain details about people on the show, and highlight specific aspects of their character. Fielder’s style of comedy relies on cringe and discomfort and this involves embarrassment. Perhaps it should be considered that Fielder has an established body of work. If those going on the show had researched his work before agreeing to appear then it may have become clear that they were likely to be used for comedic effect. Fielder thinks that his work is about the people he interacts with on the show and empathy seems to be at the heart of all of his work. Even if he pokes fun at those who work with him, he also pokes fun at himself.

See the trailer for The Rehearsal here.

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