I’m an overthinker. Oftentimes, I’m distracted by everyday situations. Yesterday’s encounter, where I bumbled my way through ordering a latte, only to get a filter coffee and refused to confront the barista to change my drink. What if I had stood closer to the bar while they were making my drink? What if I said I wanted regular milk in my drink? Events yet to happen have a similar hold over me: what would it be like to have a kid? Would I be a good mom? Would I repeat the mistakes my parents made? Would my kids turn out better than I did? I replay events over and over again, making slight deviations and encountering the same or different outcomes.
I’m also paralyzed by indecision. Confronted by the sheer pathway of meaningful (or meaningless) deviations in behaviour, it feels like the only action worth taking is staying still. I crawl back into bed, hoping to turn my brain off long enough to stop spiralling out of control. What good is worrying about things that haven’t happened? What purpose does it serve to calculate my world? I ask too many questions, I think. There are too many answers.
In the midst of my anxiety attacks, I found Nathan Fielder. His docu-comedy series, The Rehearsal (2022) follows a fictionalized Fielder, who is set on helping others overcome a particular event in their lives. For Kor, that’s confessing to one of his trivia friends that he doesn’t have a Masters’s degree, or Patrick, who wants to confront his brother about his grandfather’s will. However, this isn’t traditional reality TV. Fielder’s spin on the concept is to have the participant ‘rehearse’ the event in order to reach their desired outcome. “…I’ve learned that if you plan for every variable,” Fielder says in the show trailer’s voiceover, “a happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance” (HBO).
He builds elaborate sets–fully recreating a bar down the rips in its chairs–or simulates the passing of time by having his crew plant zucchini and celery from the grocery into the garden. These spaces also include actors, some of whom are meant to stand in for the participant’s intended target, and who are coached to behave as similarly as possible to their subjects. Others populate the scene in order to add more variables to the event and to make it as close to real life. Inside the studio walls is a simulacrum–a copy of reality.
Fielder’s show is, essentially, a large thinking piece that blurs the line between interiority and exteriority. A rehearsal offers the possibility to map out each action or interaction in order to find the most optimal path. At first, this is represented by a flow chart. Fielder traces out different variables as they occur in the rehearsal to find out how the participant reacts. Each encounter unfolds and is assessed: was this sentence successful? How did the subject react? How do we find the right way forward? The outline is then adjusted accordingly until the participant follows a pre-arranged, linear path that will lead them within reach of their desired outcome.
All of this is probably what it would be like to see my anxiety and overthinking come alive on screen.
There are hiccups of course. For example, in the real-life scenario, Kor flounders just before he can confess his secret to his trivia teammate. “…[t]his is something that never happened once in his rehearsal.” Fielder says in a voice-over, watching the scene from a hidden camera, “Which means I failed to prepare him for how he would feel” (“Gold Digger”). This impetus to get deeper into replicating experience through a facsimile becomes realized with Patrick. Patrick wants to confront his brother regarding his conditional exclusion from their grandfather’s will. To incorporate feelings, Fielder sets Patrick up on an adventure ‘outside of the rehearsal’, using the actor that plays his brother. This secondary layer of rehearsal cumulates in a series of events that replicate nearly the same conditions leading up to Patrick’s situation. Surprisingly, after this experience, he’s able to speak openly and candidly to his brother’s actor at the primary rehearsal. However, he never returns back to the set. It’s left unresolved as to whether he truly tells his brother how he feels.
In a way, I’ve been following the ‘Fielder Method’ with my own memories. I had a friend I stopped talking to. In my memory, she sits across the university table from me, and avoids my direct gaze. I already know the outcome. I’ve already lived it. We’ll sit in silence like this forever since neither of us will budge. Still, I start cutting up the memory and finding its permutations:
- I ask her what’s wrong. She’s flighty and dodges the question. She sends me a message a week later saying that she wants to grab a pitcher and potato wedges at the bar. She’ll never tell me what was wrong.
- I yell at her, saying that she was wrong to start ignoring me first. I shake her and curse her out until I get kicked out of class. She laughs nervously and refuses to speak to me again.
- I send her an email in class. ‘Let’s be civil and work things out’. Again, she tries to dodge the situation. A year later, she sends me a polite email confirming that we’re colleagues, not friends.
Reconstructing this rehearsal lessens in importance over the years. Memories that could be exploited for setting, like the prof kicking up his feet onto the table, or the student who cried in class, grow fuzzy and vague. The thought becomes a set in a warehouse. At its core remains emotions, loosely bound to a simulacrum of someone I used to know. Everything around it is neatly manufactured so that anything is possible. Although memories attempt to exist as we once experienced them, we rewrite them with time, adding new dimensions with each thought and lessening old ones to bring focus to what matters to us. And overthinking, whether we like to or not, lets us stoke hope for something different. Maybe it can even change future outcomes. Unfortunately, Fielder also shows us how easy it is to repeat ourselves, and slip further away from truly acknowledging and accepting the real.
The bulk of The Rehearsal revolves around Angela, a participant that wants to try out raising a child out in the countryside. In order to make this rehearsal as realistic as possible, Fielder rents a house for her to live in, and over the course of several weeks, she’s able to experience becoming a mother, starting with an infant all the way to adulthood. This rehearsal becomes difficult to manage though, whether it’s due to Angela’s waning interest in “actually experiencing a simulation” versus a vacation, or due to Fielder’s commitments to other rehearsals. As a result, Fielder steps in to become a non-romantic co-parent, entering someone else’s rehearsal, and encountering his own inner desires.
Along the way, he is confronted by his own perceived inability to parent. He creates a bond with one of the young child actors who calls him ‘Daddy’, long after concluding his role and outside of the perimeters of the rehearsal. In order to understand this attachment and if he did something wrong to this child and his family, he concludes the series with an elaborate meta-simulation of himself as this child actor’s mother. He repeats key events that have already happened until the situation becomes uncanny and estranged. However, it’s not necessarily uncomfortable, but emotionally charged. He even goes a step further and creates new dialogue based on shadowing his ‘subject’. When the older child actor (who’s playing the first, younger, and more vulnerable child actor) starts to cry about his ‘pretend daddy’, Fielder sits on the floor across from his son and says, “That man didn’t mean to confuse you, hunny. He just didn’t know what he was doing. You know, he’s not that different from you. He’s just figuring stuff out and messing up on the way.”
Fielder then makes a slip-up and calls himself ‘Dad’ instead of ‘Mom’. The child actor slowly replies out of character, “Wait, I thought you were my mom”, not knowing if this is part of the original rehearsal or the secondary rehearsal. Nathan pauses. Slowly, he laughs to himself. “No, I’m your dad.” We don’t know how much of this series is actually Nathan Fielder or his character ‘Nathan Fielder’ (and this question far exceeds the aim of this essay). However, this scene unfurls with the realization that the rehearsal, and its subsequent derivatives, are a reflection of his own inner psyche rather than the ‘real’ world around him. He is the constructor of this world. He can reshape his internal reality. He can forgive himself by manipulating what he thinks other people think of him. Is that enough? No. He dives back into the simulation, ending the series by confirming his role as a dad, and saying to his son, “Let’s go play.”
Like Fielder, many of his participants believe that they can control the outcome of this event, or at least live out (and live with) the least bad ending. The act of the rehearsal, the process of overthinking, brings some relief or closure. At the same time, many are absorbed in their own interior world, built largely by how they perceive others. However, they aren’t able to reflect on larger, external issues that shape their decision-making. For Kor, it’s about asking why having a Master’s degree is so important, given that all of his other white teammates have them, and that he, as a black man feels that he needs to lie about it. Conversely, the implication that Patrick’s ‘gold digger’ girlfriend could exclude him from his grandfather’s will suggests larger questions regarding expectations of what financial stability looks like and how capital transforms familial as it circulates with conditions.
The closest realization of an exterior world, one in which tacitly or consciously informs, comes from Fielder’s conflict with Angela. After Nathan steps in to co-parent Adam, he asks Angela if it’s possible to raise the child in both faiths: Christianity and Judaism. Just before this scene, we see Fielder trying to rehearse this conversation with an actor. Each iteration reveals the simulated Angela creates a wall around between them, thereby denying Fielder of his capacity to respond. This even foreshadows how Angela actually responds, answering, “I, unfortunately, can’t participate in Judaism because Judaism denies that Christ came and died for us. So I can’t deny that. So I wouldn’t raise a child to deny that, ‘cause that’s the truth.” (“Apocalypto”).
There are many external factors that shape our decision-making. It’s no surprise that capitalism and its ever-appearing heads feast on visions of the future, and force our hands, subconsciously and consciously. The world is on fire and the water is filled with microplastics, but rent and food have gone up exponentially, and I can’t afford to quit a 9-5. The idea of having children is slowly cannibalized by consumerism, as fictitious offspring are left to inherit a world of Mad Max scarcity. Even if I imagine my death, and its endless pantomimes of funerals, the crowd grows thin until it’s just me, watching the morgue dump my ashes into a pyramid of shapeless bodies. Possibility exists, but it’s constructed within a firm and unforgiving framework. We don’t have full control of our futures.
Part of this sentiment is what overthinking is. Our minds convince us that we can’t do anything and that being paralyzed in indecision is something beyond our capabilities. However, there are also very real structures of power that affect our decision-making and disproportionately impact marginalized people. You can be disenfranchised and incapacitated from making certain choices by virtue of who you are. Does that mean that we, as humans, are deprived (and deprive others) of the possibility to act meaningfully? I don’t think The Rehearsal can offer an answer to this. The show is simply one man’s mind, spiraling out of control. However, one way out is to think together. Deeply engaging with others and relying on our friends, families, and colleagues around us can lessen the burden of our choices, whether it’s the fear of imagined outcomes or uncertainty as it’s felt. If we take a chance to find and build meaning with others, perhaps a multiverse of outcomes doesn’t matter anyway.
The Rehearsal | Official Trailer | HBO. Created by HBO. YouTube, 6 Jul. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fjPFt8cpic. Accessed 27 Feb. 2023.