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Dispatches from the present


Honest Mistakes


On the HBO series The Rehearsal, Nathan (a character that the comedian Nathan Fielder plays, if there is indeed a Fielder in there) executes an absurd trial run at parenting with a semi-witting participant named Angela. For weeks, they live together in a heavily surveilled house, where the production crew is constantly switching out child actors to simulate the experience of watching a kid grow up. In one of the most uncomfortable moments of the show, Nathan, a Jew, and Angela, a hard-line evangelical Christian, discuss the religious education of their child. Nathan wants to do both Jewish and Christian holidays. Angela insists that any inclusion of Judaism in their child’s upbringing is a denial of Christ. Unbeknownst to Angela, they land on a compromise. Nathan apparently lets the holiday issue go, but begins surreptitiously taking the child (actor) to a Hebrew tutor, who schools the child in Jewish fundamentals and debunks his Christian attachments. Nathan has the child shower after every lesson, to keep up the ruse that they’ve been going to “swim practice.”

In the final episode, Nathan assesses the damage he’s done in roping child actors into such a confusing project. Certainly six-year-olds understand the concept of playing pretend, but getting two fake religious educations that each assert the falsity of the rival religion might just be disorienting. Backstage, Nathan debriefs one of these child actors with his mom, saying, “Judaism is just some, like, pretend thing … you get to go to heaven [as a Christian] but I have to go to hell as a Jew.” Trying to be true to himself, Nathan lies, and his lies only produce more lies—lies of the most wretched, self-injurious kind.

The project, Nathan realizes, was morally bankrupt from the start. Even worse than the religious confusion is the strong attachment that another child actor, Remy, forms to Nathan. Fatherless, the child begins to call Nathan “daddy” off set. Following this incident, Nathan reflects on how he could have avoided all the confusion and emotional injury. These reflections culminate in Nathan rehearsing the role of Remy’s mother. He dresses up as her and tries to assuage Remy’s hurts. (Remy is here played by another child actor.) Eventually, he absolves himself, telling the child that Nathan is “just figuring stuff out and messing up along the way.”

Critics have been quick to describe The Rehearsal as a show about reality. How much of it is staged? What makes our relationships with another “real”? “Is it ever possible to truly understand another person?” The implication is that we want to be liked, we want to be in control, and so we are all insulated from one another by glacial layers of inauthenticity. But these questions are distractions.

I have no doubt that the child actors felt “real” distress, and that Nathan felt “real” guilt. But insofar as all of this is happening on TV, it’s not real. Nathan is a collection of pixels, a concept, a comedic character. Nathan is not a person. When you see someone through a camera, they simply are not there. Representation is not and cannot be reality. No matter how sincere Nathan seems in his moral searching, he remains a character on a screen. The Rehearsal effectively dramatizes the obvious: reality TV is just another kind of fiction.

As the show progresses, Nathan begins to sound like another morally questionable and questioning artist: David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Octet,” Wallace moves from a series of ethically probing vignettes to a reflection on how the piece of writing itself is failing to come together to his satisfaction. He decides that his only option is to ask his reader if it works. The trouble is, that for this strange tactic to succeed, the writer must “be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked—more like unarmed. Defenseless.” And in attempting this honesty, the author risks looking like “a self-consciously inbent schmuck, or like just another manipulative pseudopomo Bullshit Artist who’s trying to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to a metadimension and commenting on the fiasco itself.” Wallace suggests a paradox: I cannot renounce control over my text. No matter how “honest” I appear, I selected my anecdotes, my tone, my style for a rhetorical purpose. I chose “honesty” for a reason.

Fielder decided well to continue escalating the absurdity of the show, to set Nathan’s apparently sincere ethical observations against increasingly baroque lies and performances. Because no matter how “real” the happenings on the other side of the camera are, we cannot access them. We are stuck with representations that have been curated and edited, with encounters that cannot but be staged. Fielder’s lies are the deepest honesty of which his medium is capable.