Sept. 14, 2022

On HBO's "The Rehearsal," Reality TV Ain't Real

On HBO's "The Rehearsal," Reality TV Ain't Real

Billed as a "docu-comedy," the new Nathan Fielder HBO series, The Rehearsal, purports to take ordinary people through a variety of rehearsed life events with the goal of improving outcomes in their real lives. Kor Skeet wants to make a big confession; Angela wants to see if she's cut out for motherhood; Patrick wants an inheritance that is being withheld from him. Along the way, host Fielder designs so-called rehearsals to give each the chance to practice for their big moment, with Fielder often turning the lens of the experiment onto himself. But is it truly a reality program with unwitting subjects? Or simply a parody with actors playing unwitting subjects? 

The question isn't whether the performers were all actors (although there are plenty of reasons to believe they were). The question is, was there really a series of legitimate social experiments that these people believed they were taking part in? Or were they plants put into those scripted situations to create that illusion? (Much like the plants magicians call from the audience to saw in half onstage, wearing shoes that match those we later see wiggling on the bottom half of the "magically" split torso.)

Most of the available evidence seems to come down squarely done on the latter.

Sure, we know Fielder from his previous work on Comedy Central's Nathan For You and as a writer-producer of How To with John Wilson. In those pseudo-reality projects, the hosts bring their cameras out into the real world to play pranks on volunteer participants, often people doing a mundane job, with the goal of laughing at their reactions when the host says or does something outrageous. Sometimes these productions include simulated stunts, like climbing a mountain to get a $12 gas rebate or walking a tightrope between buildings to win over a girl. But mostly they are just Candid Camera taken to a new, more absurd level, with the focus of the gag being squarely on the unwitting civilian subject.

The Rehearsal pretends to be that, but it's clearly not. Any thoughtful analysis of its preposterous storylines and unlikely twists reveals that it must be scripted, with very talented actors pretending to believe the plots are real. Not necessarily scripted with a full shooting script, but outlined and plotted in advance so that every humorous accident and disasterous plot turn was pre-ordained by Fielder and his writing team.

In other words, a counterfeit version of Nathan For You. An elaborate ruse on reality.

As The Hollywood Reporter states, "The Rehearsal is more contrived than Nathan for You at every turn" and that "suspending disbelief as to the reality or lack thereof is nearly required."

Here is the circumstantial evidence in four parts:

1 – THE TIMELINE

The first indication that The Rehearsal is just a series of pre-written comedy sketches is the timeline itself. In episode 2, Nathan establishes the premise of Angela's social experiment, to rehearse motherhood "over two months" in a simulation that would allow her to rehearse mothering a baby, three-year-old, six-year-old, nine-year-old, twelve-year-old, fifteen-year-old, and eighteen-year-old. Seven ages. That would be about nine days at each age, or 63-days.

The premise is simple: once each age has been completed, Angela's son will move on to the next age in a chronological sequence straight through 18, giving Angela the experience of being a single mother. But that logic quickly falls apart.

At the beginning of episode 4 ("The Fielder Method"), Adam is six and Nathan goes to Los Angeles for some unspecified time to train actors. When he returns, Adam is a fifteen-year-old. Nathan's voice over states that "nine years had passed in Adam's life," and then we watch him and Angela struggle with coparenting a teenager coping with life-threatening drug addiction. 

Yet for highly contrived reasons, at the top of episode 5 ("Apocolypto"), the series storyline circles back to Adam being 9 again. That makes no sense. He was already 15. Mommy Angela had already experienced the previous ages. There'd be no reason to go back in time. There's a short scene where they plant a cover line that Fielder wants to take the experiment back to age six so he can experience those years again as a father. But it defies logic in the context of the reality show he presented to us from the start, since it was about Angela's rehearsal for parenting, not his.

You also have to buy that HBO would pad the budget to add 3-5 more weeks of shooting. TV shows do not work that way, especially low-budget comedies that can't even afford to pay extras for wild lines. (See "Crew & Logistics.")

As Aaron Sorkin says, "If you’re wondering whether...an element of a story is too ridiculous for your audience, don’t ask, “Could it happen?” Instead ask, “Would it happen?" This flip of turning Angela's experiment into Nathan's experiment for his own weird reasons would not happen. On what other reality show has the host become it's sole subject mid-season?

The only reasonable explanation is that Fielder and his two co-writers purposely pulled the timeline rug out from under the audience as a pre-written ploy to give Nathan's character the chance to parent Adam alone from six through eighteen. It's a contrivance of logic they slip by us so they can tell the Nathan story they truly wanted to tell all along.

2 - THE ACTORS

The major argument for the legitimacy of the series is that the "real people" subjects of the experiments don't seem to be acting. As if actors aren't real people, and real people cannot act.

We know from reporting that Angela Sankovich, the subject of episodes 2-5, is in fact a professional actress with a Backstage acting résumé and acting/voice  demo reels. And upon watching and re-watching her from episode to episode, it becomes obvious that this woman is playing a caricature of a reality show personality. Reality TV volunteers are more tentative and tactful when they are on camera for the first time. They are self-aware they are being filmed, and try to behave. Their goal is not to embarrass themselves on TV. 

But Angela and her boyfriend wannabe Robin quickly shed any pretense of being polite on camera and casually reveal the ugliest sides of themselves with little self-awareness or remorse – right up to the point of Robin revealing he plans to bed Angela against her explicitly stated wishes, and Angela revealing herself to be an unrepentent religous bigot and anti-Semite. Those are the choices of contrived, written antagonist characters, not ordinary people trying to look good on national television.

It's also hard to fathom that Kor, knowing he was on national TV to make a major confession to a friend, would be so distracted by a trivia contest that he wouldn't be able to focus on the business he was there for. Or that Patrick would wipe a complete stranger's messy behind out of the goodness of his heart. Those are comedy writers' jokes. A scripted version of what viewers believe a reality show contestant might do. Remember, reality series have plenty of outrageous moments, but they don't contain scripted jokes. This "reality series" tosses joke lines and visual gags at us at a pace that defies the serendipity of egos and editing. 

Indeed, TV writers have a term for these types of contrived plot conventions and devices that are too convenient to be true. They are called "tropes," and this series is loaded with them.

It should be noted that none of the so-called "real people" (Kor, Angela, Patrick) are listed on IMDB.com as cast members, and none are allowed to do any press interviews. That's because Fielder needs to keep their true backgrounds (and possible acting credits) a secret. While they give very credible performances as real-life reality TV participants, it's just that: acting. Anyone who has ever cast actors to play "regular people" (and I have) knows that performances that authentic are possible with direction and plenty of takes.

Indeed, if you look at IMDB for any reality show, or Borat movie, or even Nathan For You, the onscreen subjects are all credited. As best we can tell, only The Rehearsal hides the identities of its alleged "real" performers. And they do it for a reason. Were they exposed to real journalists asking actual questions about the production, they would be exposed as actors, and the fictional "reality" facade would quickly fall apart.

3 – THE LOCATIONS

To be true to form, the first episode had to be shot in part during an actual trivia night competition held at a Brookyln, New York bar called the Allegator Lounge. But there is some compellling evidence that little if any of the series was actually shot in the state of New York.

At least two different websites categorically that the entire series was shot in Oregon, not in New York, and that Portland locations doubled for New York City. (A third entertainment industry website reported the same facts, but then mysteriously backtracked after readers pointed out the inconsistency.) That makes the entire pilot episode implausible. 

Indeed, the the company that manages the Alligator Lounge trivia night has hinted on Twitter of the subterfuge, saying "that was a reasonable facsimile of a reasonable facsimile of our Monday night Trivia" and adding, "Reality TV ain't real, folks." And Vullture Magazine reports that the show's allegedly real trivia night host and bartender were not the real people who worked there in 2019 when the show was shot. If the people portrayed as real were actors, the entire sequence had to be fabricated.

If your head is spinning, that's the whole point. To make us question reality shows and the fake reality they present. It's all done through a highly detaield plot and film magic to make us think we are experiencing a real situation gone awry.

4 – CREW AND LOGISTICS

While cast and crew have been unusually tightlipped about the production, some facts we do know lead us to conclude that the bulk of the social experiment storyline is a contrived plot

Series editor Stacy Moon is quoted as saying the editors were working off a scripted outlines that emphasized "the beats of our story" to shape how they cut the footage. While Moon implies that the outlines were created after the shooting took place, any reasonable look at the storylines concludes they had to be conceived and planned ahead of time.

In episode 2, we are told that Nathan hired a self-described "night owl" off Craig's List to run the sound board at night, but that the night owl "fell asleep 15 minutes after his shift began" – two nights in a row! And we see a shot of the guy asleep with his head on the sound board. It's funny – and that's what it's meant to be.

Real crew members who fall asleep on the job are fired on the spot. TV series have people called Line Producers and Unit Production Managers who make sure of that. This series had at least five of them, all seasoned veterans. Line Producers don't hire weird looking drifters off Craig's List simply because they claim to be a "night owl." An HBO production doesn't hire some random sound engineer off Craig's List.

Some Reddit fans of the show have shrugged off this highly contrived incongruity as just a Fielderesque gag in an otherwise true-to-life scenario, going so far as to speculate it was staged at a fake sound board. But how do you cast for a guy who is going to fall asleep on the job? And if you don't know that's going to happen in advance (how could you?), why would you cast a fake sound editor in the first place?

In the same episode they show PAs (production assistants) carrying babies up and down ladders to make real-time child actor switches. Funny, but did it really happen. Highly doubtful. Not only would no sane mother let her newborn be handled that way like a football, no production insurance company would insure that stunt. And since those switches were essential for the "reality" aspect of the show to be real, it's reasonable to infer that the entire reality component of the Angela storyline (switching out babies every 4 hours) was fake.

Similarly, in episode 6, Nathan plans a simulated birthday party for his reality show "son" Adam, with extras hired to play friends and parents. On the day of the shoot, however, Nathan tells us in the voice over that he only remembered that day that if the extras in the party scene actually talk, he has to pay them all more, money that wasn't in his budget. Then, we watch the party where everyone is pantomiming comically overacted conversations. Again, that's a gag – a very funny, pre-planned and scripted visual joke. But it it's a joke, then what's the point of the storyline? Is Fielder truly morphing into a parent before our eyes? Or is the entire arc of that storyline an extended, scripted gag? 

We could go on citing examples, like the fourth episode's "The Fielder Method" school of acting – one extended comedy sketch that gets so surreally cartoony that Nathan ends up taking his own acting class incognito, with yet another actor playing Nathan as the teacher, and then slowly ends up assuming the private life of acting student Thomas, including dressing in his clothes and surrepticiously moving into his apartment. It's brilliantly absurd in the telling, but clearly not believable, even in the warped faux-reality world of a Nathan For You or Borat.

When you start watching beat after beat of these perfectly timed, perfectly shot, obvious jokes, you can only come to one conclusion: this series is jokey because it was written that way. It's a parody of a reality show. Like an SNL sketch. No more real than Weekend Update is a real newscast.

And if, for argument's sake, it really was a reality show in which its producer-star slid into a self-absorbed psychosis during the first six episodes that not only caused his series lead (Angela) quit on him and severely traumatized a child actor, but turned the show into a painful psychopathic study of himself, you have to ask yourself, why would HBO pick up that show for a SECOND SEASON?

The answer is, they wouldn't. Because disastrous TV shows don't make good comedy franchises.

If you're still not convinced, so be it. After all, The Rehearsal is just a comedy show, and everyone can enjoy it on their own terms. But if you had doubts or confusion about what you were watching, this is why. It's a series that claims to be reality TV but it really is not. It's funny. It's insightful. It's even poignant. 

But real? C'mon! To quote people who would know, "reality TV ain't reality, folks." And "real" Angela and Kor are as phony as their fake counterparts.