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On ‘The Rehearsal,’ All the World’s a Set, and All the Men and Women Merely Nathans

Why the show's production design is central to both its silly and serious parts.

A photo from the production of “The Rehearsal” in New York, N.Y., on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Photo: David M. Russell/HBO ©2020 HBO. All Rights Reserved

“The Rehearsal”


If nothing else, hopefully “The Rehearsal” throws into sharp relief the Herculean feat that is modern film and television production design. It’s not just on mystery box-fueled genre fare where every single element of every single space is tailored, has intention, and is telling a story about the main character through the physical details surrounding them. From the books on their shelves to the shape of their chairs, all that information offers us a window into what the people onscreen value, how they see themselves, and how they prefer to move through the world.

Whether it’s the flight deck of Battlestar Galactica or the elevators of the Arconia, sets sometimes take on a character of their own that silently shapes how we see the protagonists. On reality TV, there’s an inverse phenomenon going on, where the subjects and the camera make stages out of spaces designed to look naturalistic. “The Rehearsal” is a fascinating case where artifice and reality are intentionally merged to muddy the audience’s perspective. Everything you see on “The Rehearsal” is a set and that is kind of the dilemma of “The Rehearsal.”

Creator and star Nathan Fielder tells us why upfront: “I’m not good at meeting people for the first time. I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that. Humor is my go-to instinct, but every joke is a gamble.” The joke “The Rehearsal” places its bets on: Everything Fielder is presenting to us can and probably will be repurposed into the trial runs that give the show its name. Nothing we see will be allowed to let stand simply as real life. There are rehearsals all the way down. In this, the show approximates Fielder’s social anxieties and an exploration of just how genuine we are with each other, while also getting laughs each time some new piece of its world turns out to be phony.

The revelation of an exact Alligator Lounge replica in Episode 1, then that fake Alligator Lounge’s move across the country, and then the set’s transformation into a functioning bar called Nate’s Lizard Lounge are all comedic escalations on the show’s initial joke: that HBO is footing the bill for Fielder’s indulgences. (Although if they can save $15,000 on a birthday party sequence filled with silent background actors, they will.) The line between how many fakes Fielder can pass off as real and how many real things he can get to seem fake and forced, is so tangled in “The Rehearsal” that it’s almost meaningless. Almost. Because, as Fielder warns in Episode 1, “There’s something strange about entering a space that’s indistinguishable from another. In moments, you can forget where you are.”

There is a sly absurdism to how far Fielder can go in turning any and every location into a set, and there’s even an odd kind of thrill to not knowing exactly where we are. There’s something magical about getting to decide exactly how real or scripted we think “The Rehearsal” is. But as the series goes on, Fielder’s ability to shape the world and isolate any moment, place, or relationship for further rehearsal becomes more fraught. Each escalation and meticulous recreation with an actor mimicking another person on the show is another step back from the original relationships Fielder holds up as worthy of such rigorous preparation. It’s another step along the road to being lost.

Showing Up

“The Rehearsal”

Allyson Riggs/HBO

When is it okay to get lost in the proverbial sauce is a key question of the series, and it’s one the show deliberately muddies through the way that it changes our view of Fielder’s and the participants’ environments. Contrast Kor Skeet’s introduction in Episode 1 with Angela’s in Episode 2. We first see Kor in his actual home, and while it’s safe to assume that the scene of the New York teacher playing along with “Jeopardy!” was staged for the cameras, there’s still a sense that we’re observing him in his day-to-day reality. The rug is pulled out from under us — and brought to the replica of Kor’s apartment in a warehouse across town — when it’s revealed when and how Fielder staged a rehearsal of this first interaction, undercutting the common assumption of both documentary film and reality TV: that we are just, to paraphrase a popular network slogan, watching what happens.

No matter how many manipulations Fielder deploys for Skeet’s ostensible benefit, though, the episode stays grounded in what’s real. The quality of the camera footage of the actual Alligator Lounge trivia night attended by Kor and his friend Tricia is noticeably poorer compared to what’s captured in the studio replica. The compositions are messier, less able to center our subjects. Inside the studio, even when it’s crammed with extras, Kor and Fake Tricia’s interactions are able to take up much more of the frame.

And of course there’s Fielder, who doesn’t hide inside a control room or behind a monitor but stays on set opposite Kor, just on the periphery of the rehearsal, to offer notes or input new ideas into his custom conversation-flow-chart software. The Alligator Lounge is a kind of shotgun shape, but Fielder is perched on a stool at the center of the bar and, whether it’s a convenient coincidence or not, the walls are spaced such that cameras have room to shoot perfectly centered coverage of him. The design of key sets in reality programming tends to pull people toward a geometric focus point: a stage on which great bakes, red roses, or tiki torches can be presented. In “The Rehearsal,” the point of emphasis in any environment is Fielder himself.

With Angela, we start mid-rehearsal, first with a wall of surveillance cameras that pulls back to reveal Fielder in the control room/video village alongside the production crew and two mothers of children who’ll be playing Angela’s faux son, Adam. What looks an awful lot like a baby heist is actually an actor swap meant to comply with child labor laws — which positions us to understand this situation and even the reality of the subject very differently. We see the artifice first, and the person second. No matter that after the title card she is revealed to be a willing participant in this rehearsal for parenthood; when we’re with Angela, we’re always going to be primed to look for what’s fake. We’re always going to understand that her dream house is a manufactured, unreal space, which makes the moments where we lose that sense of artifice — perhaps notably the shot-on-iPhones Dr. Fart video and Angela and Fielder’s argument about it — proof of the power of Fielder’s high-budget make believe.

The Rehearsal

“The Rehearsal”

Allyson Riggs / HBO

The precedent that Fielder sets in Episode 2 — that all the world can be a rehearsal stage and any person can be a player — gets carried to its logical conclusion in Episode 6. We come back to the control room, where Fielder first tries to re-rehearse the events that have led one of the actors playing Adam, Remy, to believe Fielder is his father. Burrowing deeper, Fielder then takes on the persona of Remy’s mother, Amber, experiencing her side of the rehearsal as run by the actor who first stands in for Fielder in the show’s fourth episode. These layers within layers could be maddening, or take away from the genuine dilemma that haunts Fielder about potentially confusing this little boy. But Fielder makes a point of drawing special attention to Remy and Amber’s home, calling it both a work of art and just real life, with a genuineness and level of detail that can’t be faked.

There’s also a reason that the child swaps to older/younger are covered through doors and playground slides and in single shots that actually increase the sense of an optical illusion. We see both exactly how fake these manipulations are, thereby defanging the chance of any further confusion, and also see the way Fielder tries to suspend his disbelief and buy into the fakery for the sake of the experiment. We see what’s happening and we see him trying.

In any film, but especially in “The Rehearsal,” every single cut is a child swap of its own. We make connections across images that may or may not be actually true: that a new shot of a bar is the still the same bar, that a house is where someone lives and not a vacation spot that’s been rented out for a couple months, that characters’ relationships are genuine. The show gets a lot of humor out of subverting our assumptions about where we are and what’s happening. But the artificial nature of how the show treats its sets and locations is also its path to more complex questions, about just how far we can or should go as creatures who move through life making meaning out of sometimes very disparate occurrences, and about what we owe to each other as we try to get our own stories right. The trick is to watch Fielder. And wherever he goes, “The Rehearsal” makes sure that you can.

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