Throughout “Finding Frances,” the movie-length finale to the fourth season of his Comedy Central show, “Nathan for You,” we see Nathan Fielder sitting in a moving car beside his septuagenarian co-star Bill Heath. Viewers of the show’s third season may remember Heath as a Bill Gates impersonator brought in to assist with a fraudulent film production intended to boost the sales of a struggling LA souvenir store, in one of Fielder’s patented Mark Cuban-meets-Rube Goldberg machinations. Throughout its four seasons, “Nathan for You” has featured Fielder as the host of a mock business improvement show, imperturbably in control as he draws small business owners into increasingly preposterous stratagems. The finale finds him on a different mission, on a search for Bill’s long-lost love, a woman named Frances.
Driving through suburban Arkansas, Fielder appears alternately reflective, bored, and uneasy; but if he sometimes doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, it’s difficult to blame him. After all, there aren’t many handy conventions to go by for comedians attempting to reconnect aged showbiz eccentrics with mystery women. The moving automobile is one of our culture’s most recognizably liminal spaces, put to memorably cinematic ends by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami or David Lynch in the year’s other instant classic TV movie, “Twin Peaks: The Return.” Watching Nathan’s poker face as he navigates an environment unfamiliar in more ways than one, the mounting uncertainty produces a thrill of its own: Where is Nathan going? What will he find?
The balance of comedy, suspense, and pathos that is extended throughout “Finding Frances,” is the most ambitious high-wire act in a series full of them, sometimes literally: the finale of season 3, titled “The Hero,” saw Fielder spend seven months learning to tightrope walk. To understand the purpose of his ordeal we must here back up a little: trying to recast regular person Corey Calderwood as a hero, Fielder mounted an elaborate, life-threatening tightrope walk as a publicity stunt, assuming the man’s identity (replete with a disturbing latex mask) and essentially kidnapping the actual Calderwood to a trailer in the desert (accessible by helicopter). As if this wasn’t enough, Fielder went on a few dates in character as Calderwood, so that the “hero” would have a romantic happy ending once he returned to assume his identity. Before the watchful gaze of the local news and a few dozen spectators, Fielder completed the perilous walk then disappeared so that Calderwood himself could emerge into the arms of his waiting love, meeting her for the first time on camera.
An interest in charlatanism has characterized Fielder’s work since the very beginning. In a 2010 sketch, a 27-year-old Fielder appears as transparently fraudulent psychic Ronald Shoub who tells people to sleep with crystals and claims to have advised Dennis Quaid. “The only difference between you and me,” Shoub tells the viewer, “is that I’ve chosen to call myself a psychic.” At one point in “Finding Frances,” he makes Bill into a sort riverboat confidence man, nearly a flesh-and-blood Lyle Lanley. Though as the show has progressed, Fielder has become at least equally fixated on reality, and the ways that a committed faker can shape it, assisted by the resources of even a modest television program as well as the bottomless credulity of the American public. Like Ronald Shoub branding himself a psychic, Nathan Fielder chooses to call himself a TV host, Corey Calderwood, or a hero; all the while remaining finely attuned to the apparatus that allows him to get away with doing so.
A rarity among contemporary comedians, the Vancouver-born Fielder doesn’t come from a standup background, nor is he necessarily an actor. Before “Nathan for You,” he was best known as a special correspondent for “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” Canada’s loose equivalent to “The Daily Show.” Before this, he made a wide variety of short films, which are still available on Fielder’s Youtube page. Produced with scant resources, the videos contain in embryonic form the hallmarks of his later work: a willingness to plumb excruciating extremes of social awkwardness, an interest in absurd and ritualistic behavior, and a reliance on the medium itself for jokes. Fielder also showed an interest in less heralded forms of visual media, building his skills as a formal mimic with faithful parodies of horror movie trailers, student films, and demo reels. This engagement with overlooked media products made him a kindred spirit to erstwhile film school kids Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, aka Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric, who would go on to produce “Nathan for You” through their company, Absolutely Productions. But while Tim and Eric amplified the strangeness of 21st-Century visual culture to terrifying extremes, Fielder is willing to inhabit it as it is, systematically building his formidable comic structures from within.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Fielder’s comedy stylings working as well in a more traditional setting. Unfailingly deadpan and dressed in outfits dull enough to make Jerry Seinfeld look like Rihanna, Fielder doesn’t make jokes so much as pull people into baroque comic dilemmas with the tractor beam of his inimitable anti-charisma. In this, the show’s bland yet deceptively nimble visual style is the perfect match for his normcore screen presence. The comedy of watching a small army of Fielder body doubles sprint out of a hotel or an obese man balanced on a horse by an airborne weather balloon is somehow amplified by the straightforward visual language of HGTV.
Fielder’s enlistment of ambiguously willing participants into his Machiavellian comedy schemes invites charges of exploitation. In an interview with the A.V. Club, he admitted to borrowing from the less savory aspects of the business world: “From what I gauge is the culture on Wall Street now, [the mentality] is, the only way to make money is the to find a loophole that’s technically legal but one step ahead of what anyone else has thought about. They don’t care about the how it’s affecting the world or the moral and ethical issues with it.” Yet what prevents the show from veering into callousness is the level of genuine curiosity it takes in the people it features, who resist or collaborate with Fielder on their own terms and contribute some of the show’s funniest moments, as when one business owner earnestly recommends his grandson’s urine to our host as a safeguard against illness. It would be a mistake to characterize the four seasons of “Nathan for You” as a triumph of humanist sensitivity – a certain level of cruelty inevitably remains. Yet even at the show’s most willfully eccentric, there’s an authenticity in what it captures, a blend of economic anxiety, banality, and misplaced good faith that constitutes the plurality of American life.
This landscape lends a certain resonance to the alienation and neediness of Fielder’s character, whose comic awkwardness is given shading over time. In the A.V. Club interview, Fielder states, “I’m taking a lot of the vulnerabilities and insecurities I had when I was younger and exaggerating them for the sake of comedy.” In one episode, Fielder stages a fake dating show to help him practice talking to girls; in another, he dons Hot Topic gear to seduce an “alternative” Best Buy employee. One of the show’s recurring characters, private investigator Brian Wolfe, christens Fielder, “the Wizard of Loneliness.”
Our solitary magus finds a worthy foil in Bill Heath, a genuinely odd performer whose existence appears to consist of the isolated rituals that Fielder himself alludes to maintaining in his own life, including an obsessive neatness and a devotion to the University of Arkansas football team. It’s perhaps unsurprising to note about a profoundly single man clinging dearly to the memory of woman he lost half a century ago, but there’s a darker side to Bill. His intentions are rather ambiguous, he’s not transparent about the relationship or his own life and seems to hold rather regressive attitudes in general – in a moment unmistakably out of 2016, Heath ominously tries to convince a skeptical Fielder that the winner of the election will be “Donald H. Trump.” If he is indeed stalking her, then Nathan’s show – and by extension the viewer – are complicit. For the first time, “Nathan for You” openly acknowledges its moral quandaries and pushes them to the foreground.
At the same time, there’s an undeniable pathos to the story of Bill, who’s motivated above all by the kind of regret that can be achieved only over decades. Like “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Finding Frances” is among the rare pieces of American culture to take a genuine interest in the reality of aging, depicted in both as the process of finding oneself overburdened by memory in an unfamiliar world. Similarly, as he relates to Bill for a prolonged stretch, the Nathan Fielder character begins to break down. Navigating a new part of the country, a new kind of story, and the episode’s considerable moral and emotional stakes, Nathan is unable to maintain the façade, and we see him both connecting with and becoming wary of his subject. “The more we kept shooting,” he says, “the harder it was to tell where the show ended and where life began.”
But the breakdown of one fiction doesn’t preclude the emergence of another. The episode’s coup-de-grace comes when Nathan attempts to bring in an escort named Maci for a strictly platonic date with Bill, who nonetheless refuses. When Nathan meets with her instead, the two have a natural chemistry, and Nathan continues to see her over a series of dates that begin with the diligent exchange of money. We even see him showing her episodes of “Nathan For You,” violating one of the show’s most rigorous conventions by openly letting her in on the joke. This is not the first time the show has explored the confluence of money, artifice, and emotion. In an episode of the third season titled “Smokers Allowed,” Fielder painstaking recreates an unremarkable night at a Pasadena bar using professional actors. In one scene, he engages one of the performers in a sort of acting exercise, having her repeat the words “I love you,” over and over again. What could play as a caustic take on the cultural centrality of the phrase takes an unexpected turn. The actress is visibly moved, Nathan tears up, and the viewer is put in suspense as to when and how the moment will be resolved. The moment couldn’t be more contrived, and yet the utterance retains an undeniable and terrible reality.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nathan and Maci quickly come to an instinctive understanding. Both make their livings navigating the brackish waters between the fake and the real while deftly managing their emotions and those of others. On one hand, they are professionals, and are thereby prohibited from being too sentimental about those around them; on the other, their ability to carry out their work successfully is contingent on being able to feel something real, giving their clients – or audience – something potent to respond to. As Fielder’s mask begins to slip, one begins asking questions regarding how much of himself he’s going to reveal.
Fielder’s film – at this point it makes sense to call it what it is – modulates its tone as well as any comedy in recent memory, balancing hilarity with legitimately painful poignancy. “The years go by,” Bill says, “in a snap of a finger they go by.” This moment of undeniably authentic emotion, which relegates Fielder to a breathless, tortured spectator on his own show, is followed by a slapstick gag, itself a sort of catharsis to a moment of catharsis. Nathan returns to his short film days by making a leitmotif out of a formal gag centering on a drone, which flies off fancifully at the end.
“Finding Frances” transpires in a place of uncertainty and improvisation, and it’s unlikely that this has changed for its creator. It could very well represent the culmination and endpoint of “Nathan For You” as we know it, leaving open the question of his next moves. Can he raise the stakes again, or would he prefer to leave it all behind and cultivate authentic relationships? Would that be the greatest stunt of all? Would anyone be surprised were he to pop up decades from now at the helm of a billion-dollar Silicon Valley enterprise? There’s an excitement to the suspense. As in the finale of his show, we genuinely don’t know what to expect from the Wizard of Loneliness.
Nathan Fielder’s Finale To ‘Nathan For You’ Is One Of The Year’s Best Films
Nathan Fielder’s Finale To ‘Nathan For You’ Is One Of The Year’s Best Films
Daniel Witkin is the Forward’s Culture Intern. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @dzwitkin