Contort yourself in the right viewing position and you can see the Comedy Central show “Nathan for You” as any number of things. For those who seize on the small-business angle, it’s a grand treatise on the American dream. For the method actor set, it’s one man’s willingness to put his body and psyche through unspeakable torment for the sake of his craft. For fans of corporate pranking, “Dumb Starbucks” is Everest (which Fielder presumably conquered clothed in Summit Ice gear).
But in the 21st century’s migration to unscripted programming, no reality TV show has achieved what “Nathan for You” has. Using hand-crafted spontaneity not just for its own airtime, but leeching into the public TV world at large, Nathan Fielder’s constant quest for a publicity-generating scheme has taken every tired reality TV trope and reworked it into something magical.
The lifeblood of reality shows and unscripted programming is a populace willing to throw themselves at the mercy of TV production in exchange for a possible beneficial outcome. Whether it’s social media stars who face being categorized as a cultural hero or villain, an ordinary schmuck with it a stamp collection that could be worth a couple years of college tuition, or a pair of would-be homeowners hoping to land the right fixer-upper, beyond the waiver that participants sign for any show to use their likeness, there’s an unspoken contract that being on TV means never really having control of your own story.
“Nathan for You” has democratized that process in a way that few shows have. Stripping away most of the naked ambition and brutal infighting for something with a much more modest aim, “Nathan for You” is a show without a hapless victim. In this season, as in past ones, Fielder has taken the “my-name-is-on-the-show” position of power and leveled out the playing field for everyone involved in these crazy business rebranding efforts.
Some of the bigger, outsized stunts have been built around him, but in the much more common group-effort approach, Fielder has shown that he’s willing to do what he asks of his co-conspirators. He’ll sing an a cappella composition of his own making, he’ll take a blowtorch to a polymer gel-coated groin, he’ll put himself in the precarious position of risking a felony.
Aside from various members of the current presidential administration, no one figure in American culture has been responsible for more challenges to the concept of reality more than Fielder. No matter how many times one of his stunts ends with a segment-closing montage of local news reports reproducing his schemes as mere happenstance, it does chip away at the veracity of all the nightly “you won’t believe this!” stories that come in their wake. Peeler has effectively hijacked the human interest means of production, and made one of TV’s great shows in the process. (This season, he also undercut the time-tested late night talk show anecdote formula, too.)
“Nathan for You” has an important message about scale and oneupsmanship for an entertainment world desperate for new ways to snag attention. Massive undertakings like his wedding trip mishap Kimmel bit (reportedly) took hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off, but it’s far from the biggest thing in scope that the show has ever done. The show’s answer to “Where to go next?” has rarely been to do more or do it bigger. The world of the internet itself has changed drastically in the few years the show’s been on the air, but Fielder’s been able to have at least one episode per season hop across the comedy nerd subset and make something that could surface elsewhere. From impossibly long lead times (like the hero pig video or The Movement) or ones with tighter windows, the show has doubled down on itself and its trickster spirit rather than trying to expand beyond its limits.
As the show heads to the close of its fourth season, it’s worth celebrating the show’s smaller moments, like the very end of this season’s second episode. After a typically (and unnecessarily) convoluted scheme to help out an L.A.-area massage parlor, the button on this crazy scheme is two guys talked about baking. It’s simple, weirdly touching, and a perfect comedy beat, all in one. It’s not funny because the audience has deemed these people worthy of derision or they’re destined for tabloid fame. It’s funny because it’s the kind of conversation that TV doesn’t make time for anymore.
There’s no doubt that some of Fielder’s interactions with the business owners he helps are in-character. The constant thread through the show’s first few seasons, of a TV host’s simple desire for human affection, plays out in lingering hugs, awkward meet-up plans and a few extra readings of the line “I love you.” “Nathan for You” may have done a more straightforward parody of “The Bachelor,” but shepherding one person’s quest for companionship in the middle of these bizarre antics is just making subtext out of the text of a bevy of disposable dating show franchises.
Discussing whether a reality show can be truly “real” seems like a fruitless exercise. What’s important is how much that divide between fact and controlled narrative affects what any show is striving for. There’s no way to be able to guarantee that the most sincere-seeming moments, like that quick back-and-forth about baking, are genuine, spontaneous bits of unplanned brilliance. We’ll never be able to say for sure if that convenience store owner really does what he says he does or if a writer-for-hire independently headlined a chapter of a fictional autobiography with the word “Baboons.”
But whenever the first step of one of these business experiments is Fielder going immediately to Wikipedia, it immediately undercuts the self-imposed hierarchy that so many of these unscripted shows put into place. The first move we often see to get these plans in motion is hopping on Craigslist. Sure, shortly after that there’s an army of set decorators and line producers ready to bring these ideas to fruition, but there’s some truth in the everyman illusion.
In trying to help other people, “Nathan for You” is an exercise in TV altruism. Its subjects don’t become legendary by being laughing-stocks. If there are any villains on “Nathan for You,” it’s the people who don’t come across as genuine. (The darkest moments of the pre-season special “Nathan for You: A Celebration” are reserved for a handful of people who tried to leverage their newfound fame into another TV gig.) By building a tiny viral comedy empire around careful deceptions, it weeds out the people who are dead-set on TV stardom. Because, in the end, it’s about the people. Maybe “Nathan for You” is the one show that’s here to make friends, after all.
The two-hour “Nathan For You” season finale airs tonight at 9 p.m. on Comedy Central.