Comedy Central is revising reality. A fixture of mainstream comedy since “This is Spinal Tap,” the mockumentary format allows the judgement-free camera to let Michael Scott and Nigel Tufnel embarrass themselves on their own. But with "Nathan For You," which enters its second season on July 1st, and the recently renewed "Review," the network is showing viewers that there’s more to mockumentaries than confessionals and handheld cameras. By testing the rules of reality television, "Nathan For You" and "Review" have become two of TV’s smartest comedies.
Because forget about "The Office" — these shows are not your typical mockumentaries. On "Nathan For You," our host Nathan Fielder (the entrepreneur behind "Dumb Starbucks") offers marketing advice to struggling businesses a la Gordon Ramsey. "Review," a remake of an Australian series, follows Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly), who’s the star of a fake documentary about a man who reviews life experiences. Unlike "The Office" and "Parks & Recreation," which adapt the mockumentary for the sitcom format, these shows don’t use their documentary crews as window dressing — they make them the joke. "Nathan for You" and "Review" play on our expectations of reality television, then follow segments to logical and hilarious conclusions which expose the genre’s inherent insincerity.
With the first season of his titular show, for example, Nathan Fielder has redefined the prank show. Unlike "Jackass" or Tom Green, Fielder helps people, but while he gives them ideas that seem like pranks (legalized shoplifting for attractive customers, poo-flavored frozen yogurt), these methods are surprisingly effective. People either trust or pity Fielder’s blank and baritone sales pitches — at least enough to give these suggestions a try.
Anyone who’s listened to the dialogue of “Kitchen Nightmares” knows that this is far from reality. Usually, people are provoked and disparate events are edited together to create drama, but with "Nathan for You," it’s done in a seamless manner. Because while reality TV shows are stitched together to appear as though they happened in real time, this is not Nathan’s approach. Rather than hiding his attempts to alter the plot, he makes it part of the show.
For example, when mall executives find out that Nathan’s Santa for a "Christmas In July" promotion is an ex-con, Nathan must re-group and attempt to sneak Santa into the food court without either security or Santa knowing that there’s a problem. In the episode “Gas Station,” he offers a cheap gas prices after rebate, a deal that can only be claimed at the top of a mountain. Believing no one is stupid enough to take the bait, Nathan must change the prank when people attempt to cash in, adding harder challenges at the last second to keep them from their prize. He has to regain control of his show when reality goes off script.
"Nathan For You" derives comedy from the overt phoniness of reality television through a variety of genres: We see the macho bounty hunter show when he attempts to get a private eye his first 5-star Yelp review, and in “Claw of Shame,” Nathan doubles up, combining “To Catch a Predator” consequences with David Blaine theatrics. There’s “The Hunk,” which sees Nathan staging a “Bachelor”-esque dating show to help him overcome his fears and talk to women. He even takes a couple of shots at MTV lifestyle shows with "Teen Beat," which is shot like an episode of "Pimp My Ride."
Nathan and his writing staff, which includes "Bob’s Burgers"’ Dan Mintz and "Saturday Night Live"’s Kyle Mooney (whose knack for awkwardly staged videos feels right at home in the show’s stiff direction), dance from style to style with ease, subverting each type of reality show in the process. But unlike most reality TV, Nathan’s stunts end amicably. His "Hunk" contestants support him for overcoming his social anxieties, and that private detective who once called Nathan "the wizard of loneliness" agrees to a beer with him. “Nathan for You” is conflict averse. There’s no “I’m not here to make friends.” In fact, the show frequently mentions how starved for connection Nathan is.
Such is not the case for "Review," which, despite its overt darkness, was renewed for a second season a few weeks ago. Host Forrest MacNeil tests life experiences, such as stealing, racism, eating 15 pancakes and being Batman, to help understand himself and the human condition better. But in his enthusiasm and commitment to knowledge, the show creates a story arc for Forrest in the background: His show is ruining his life.
Forrest’s discipline leads to addiction, divorce, death, and complete mental collapse, all while he attempts to remain the impervious host. Reality television shows us real life in a fixed world, but Forrest’s life continues after the segments end. So when he reviews “Racism” in the first episode, you can still feel the aftershocks episodes later. This is because, thanks to the show, Forrest forces a narrative onto his community, creating a relationship of cause and effect that runs throughout the season. After all, his African-American neighbor isn’t just going to forgive Forrest because they’re on TV.
"Review"’s best moments happen when Forrest must power through the consequences of his harder emotional challenges to complete the most pointless ones. In the triptych “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes,” Forrest must do something stupid (eat 15 pancakes), something that will ruin his life (divorce his wife), and something stupid again (eat 30 pancakes). These segments happen chronologically, so Forrest feels the pancakes when he goes through the divorce and feels the divorce when he eats more pancakes. But it doesn’t end there. Divorce proceedings interrupt the following episode’s review of Batman; after he embarrasses himself by showing up to court dressed as Batman, he returns to the review, a changed man, one whose pain and thirst for revenge makes him a more convincing Batman. Reality doesn’t stop for reality television.
"Nathan For You" and "Review" are far more self-reflexive, thanks to the mockumentary format: Nathan subverts what a prank show can be and “Review” treats reality TV as reality, following the host home and seeing what his life looks like. The line between reality and reality TV lives at the heart of these shows. And with Nathan’s pranks spilling over into the real world with Twitter pranks and the aforementioned “Dumb Starbucks,” we’ll see on July 1st how blurry that line can become.