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Nathan Fielder didn’t learn any moral lessons from ‘The Rehearsal’

With his show renewed for a second season, it’s clear the comedian isn’t feeling too bad

In the finale of Nathan Fielder’s HBO hit, “The Rehearsal,” the comedian’s convoluted setups finally came back to bite him. The complex web of a show, which followed Fielder as he helped his guests set up true-to-life rehearsals for major life moments, required a lot of child actors. And small children, it turns out, have a tough time differentiating between real life and pretend.

The last episode opens with Fielder stuttering as he explains to a 6-year-old actor, under the watchful eye of the child’s mother, that “Judaism is just some, like, pretend thing.” The kid should “be excited to be Christian,” he continues, “because you’ll get to go to heaven but I have to go to hell as a Jew.” 

“I’ll, well, I’ll burn,” Fielder finishes, looking at the mother for approval. “Yeah,” she says, looking at her kid and nodding.

How did Fielder end up having to disavow his own religion on a major television network?

In one of the rehearsals — the main one, which spanned the bulk of the episodes — Fielder was helping a devoutly Christian woman experience raising a child, with him as the father. He outfitted a house and hired a cast of several child actors to take turns playing the child, Adam. For weeks, the two of them homeschooled Adam, fed him and put him to bed. It was not scripted; the child actors were expected to improvise their way through scenes.

Feeling like he should teach his own traditions to his fake son, Fielder also ends up bringing one of the Adams to synagogue and to a Jewish tutor. He fights with his fake wife to protect Judaism. But this child — the real life actor who played Adam in the synagogue scenes — is not Jewish. And, according to his parents, he was now trying to celebrate Hanukkah alongside Christmas back in his real home. So Fielder ends up taking back everything he had said about Judaism.

The final episode of “The Rehearsal” sees Fielder grappling with the impact the show had on its child actors. In addition to the religiously confused kid, there’s also Remy, a fatherless kid who latched onto Fielder as a father figure and struggles to understand that, now that the show is over, Fielder is no longer his dad. “I don’t want you to be Nathan, I want you to be daddy,” Remy says over and over as his mom and Fielder try to explain that they were just pretending. It’s heartbreaking.

Fielder looking pensive and regretful, or so I like to imagine. Courtesy of HBOMax

Fielder has received criticism about ethics for his past show, “Nathan For You,” a quasi-documentary comedy in which he offers often-outlandish advice to small business owners. Many of his ideas are basically pranks played on gullible or unknowing shopkeepers and entrepreneurs, and people accused him of punching down and taking advantage of people.

“The Rehearsal” is almost a redo for Fielder, a show in which he can play with similarly absurdist ideas but only with people who have signed extensive consent forms and have been told exactly what they’re getting into. But the ethics still feel muddy. 

The kids are the most obvious example of the implications of Fielder’s experiments — their parents sign the consent forms, not them, and it’s hard to confirm if a toddler truly understands what it means to act. (Fielder asks if Remy knows what acting is, and he clearly does not.) But adults also often have trouble seeing, ahead of time, the implications of their choices; the consent forms cover legal liability, but Fielder is still morally involved in the impact his show has on its participants.

Fielder clearly feels awful about the impact he has had on the child actors — his discussions with Remy, the young actor without a dad, are the only moments in the show where Fielder seems to completely drop his exaggerated persona and truly seek to connect — and he tries to figure out how he can make the kind of show he’s known for without such issues. 

This, of course, means another rehearsal. He redoes scenes from Remy’s time as Adam, trying to do them differently. He tries being cold and distant as a father figure. He swaps in an older kid dressed as a child and even an adult dressed as a child, to play his 6-year-old son. He tries to act scenes out with a doll. But of course, the realism is lost, and Fielder seems to realize that there is no totally unproblematic way to practice the kind of comedy he’s known for. He’s learned his lesson.

Except he evidently hasn’t — “The Rehearsal” was just renewed for a second season. At the end of the final episode, Fielder decides to try a final rehearsal, one in which he practices forgiving himself. And apparently, he succeeded; no matter how bad he feels, Fielder is clearly ready to do it all again.





    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

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