Nathan Fielder refused to settle for “good enough” throughout Season 3 of his Comedy Central quasi-reality show Nathan for You. He narrowed his vision with each small-business owner he helped, offering truly outlandish suggestions and taking them further than they reasonably needed to go. He alienated himself from others in the show to make the audience laugh. But he set aside some of his antisocial behavior for the season finale, “The Hero,” to walk across a high wire for charity. He also did it as another human being.
A running theme of Nathan for You is that he’s somewhat blindly trusting of others. He truly believes in goodness, even when people tell him his ideas are terrible and he’s a lonely freak. So for the finale, he wanted to perform a good deed and turn a regular person into a national hero. He chose to help Corey Calderwood of Ventura, California, a part-time arcade attendant who lived at home with his grandparents. But as with everything Nathan does, it’s not straightforward logistically or morally. He assumed Corey’s identity for two weeks and let the public believe it was Corey — not Nathan — walking a wire for charity.
Nathan first tricks Corey into meeting with an Emmy Award-winning makeup artist to scan his face for a 3D mold. The artist then makes a replica of Corey’s face for Nathan to wear. Nathan studies Corey’s voice and mannerisms to behave as identically to him as possible. Nathan’s crew then helicopters Corey out to the Mojave Desert where he’s left alone, completely cut off from the world for two weeks. While Corey is gone, Nathan promotes the event. He also goes on a date, essentially falling in love on Corey’s behalf. It quickly becomes very murky whether Nathan is helping Corey or acting in his own — and Nathan for You’s — best interest by living in someone else’s body. Nathan admits that his social anxieties disappear when he’s Corey.
The ambiguity makes “The Hero” the best television episode of 2015. No drama, no comedy could match its range of emotions and thematic quandaries. The high wire act is astounding to begin with. Nathan, unbeknown to his viewers, had spent the better part of a year becoming a viable amateur tightrope walker. But even with all of his training, walking between two buildings, alone 80 feet in the air, is a nerve-wracking sight to see (just ask Robert Zemeckis or Kanye West, for that matter). The added layer is that, if Nathan were to fall, he wouldn’t die (he’s got a safety harness), but he’d ruin the reputation of somebody who’s already desperate for a better life. And it’s Corey’s involvement, or lack thereof, that really causes heart palpitations.
Nathan is very charming as Corey. He’s bashful, nerdy, says “cool beans.” When he’s out on a date, with a woman named Jasmine who knew nothing of Nathan’s stunt, he’s relaxed and makes her fall for Corey. Nathan secures a first kiss for after the wire walk, as well. But watching the two of them interact, knowing that Jasmine is being deceived, is gut-wrenching. Undoubtedly, she will eventually learn about the switch — the whole viewing world, of course, learned in the finale — so what happens when she does? Has Nathan just ruined a possible chance at love for Corey by building a relationship on a spectacular lie?
There’s no good way to be somebody else. You can’t live someone else’s life for them. But you can lay a foundation for future personal successes. In “The Hero,” it’s never clear whether Corey will be able to resume his life. His own grandparents believed he walked that wire. It’s likely there came a point, prior to the episode’s airing, where he had to tell them it wasn’t him. Will they be proud of him for opening himself up to a life-changing opportunity, or will they be disappointed that he let someone trick him? (Corey, during his two-week hiatus from life, does not know Nathan’s plans.) Was this death-defying act of guile an impetus for Corey to take control of his own life, get a better job, and move out? Or will it sink him into a depression of a worthless existence full of false achievements? There’s a lot more to “The Hero” than Nathan simply “helping” a nobody get a name for himself. That name does not come without heavy baggage.
Fresh off the season finale, Nathan for You got renewed for a fourth season. But having just aired the greatest episode in the show’s brief history, how will Fielder continue to keep it fresh? He engaged in another dangerous stunt in Season 1 when he risked exposing himself to a roomful of children, thus becoming a registered sex offender in “The Claw of Shame.” But these types of events tend to be one-offs among the more conventional business-helping episodes. Nathan cannot reasonably stun the viewer on a weekly basis. There has to be some consistency for sustained success. Expectations, however, have been raised considerably with “The Hero.” He may have no choice but to be a more affable person, as it was one of the only instances where he was not a zany deadpan comedian paralyzed with anxiety. He knows how to key into the fervor of a crowd. Maybe he should excite instead of disturb with his Season 4 ideas.
Beyond his conceptual approach to the show, Fielder will face difficulties in matching the complexity of “The Hero.” It’s simultaneously sweet and sinister. It’s naïve and conniving. It’s hilarious and frightening. There is no better episode of television in 2015. No prestige drama could match its stakes and its array of unanswerable conflicts. No comedy could produce such hearty laughter with anything scripted. “The Hero” sets Nathan Fielder in a class of his own, as a star who is daring enough to isolate himself for the sake of the show and just insane enough to use someone else for his own advantage while passing it off as kindness. Because it might be kindness! But it’s never certain.
No great work of art should be decipherable. Nathan for You’s season finale, “The Hero,” is deserving of scrutiny, praise, and endless contemplation. It’s the best we’ve gotten all year. Nothing else can remain the same.