HBO’s The Rehearsal is the best psychological thriller of the year
A deep dive into Nathan Fielder’s psyche delivers something sinister.
How do you prepare for a meeting or a phone call you’re dreading? If you’re anything like me, you overprepare. You write down a plan, make sure you have contingencies for every possibility, and do everything humanly possible to make sure you won’t look back afterward and cringe. Eventually, the preparation stops being useful and starts being more stressful than the event itself.
It’s this anxious cycle of prep work that forms the basis of Nathan Fielder’s new HBO comedy series The Rehearsal, where real people who have been putting off stressful circumstances “rehearse” every eventuality using actors, flowcharts, and carefully crafted replicas of familiar places. But beneath this goofy premise is a dark underbelly.
Fielder is no stranger to the theatrical. In one episode of his beloved but polarizing series Nathan for You, he tries to find a loophole in Los Angeles’ indoor smoking laws by staging a play called “Smoking Allowed” in a bar, where all patrons are transformed into actors. However, upon noticing the possible artistic merit of what he’s created, he then painstakingly hires actors to relive the night.
The Rehearsal leans on this premise, allowing real people and Fielder himself to run through a daunting experience over and over again in pseudo-Groundhog Day situations. His subject in the first episode is Kor, a bar trivia buff who lied to his friends years ago about his level of education. Fielder creates a perfect replica of Kor’s favorite bar so he can practice confessing the truth to his friend Tricia over a friendly game of trivia.
The ability to prepare for any possibility is every anxious person’s dream, but it’s also a mental nightmare. By building these façades, Fielder is essentially making catastrophizing — a symptom of anxiety where one assumes the worst outcome is inevitable — into reality. Kor experiences his confession going really well. But he also experiences the worst outcome he can imagine, and he experiences everything in-between.
No matter what Kor does, catastrophe is inevitable. To further complicate matters, Fielder rehearses his own initial meeting with Kor over and over again, trying different jokes with an actor playing Kor to see what lands. It’s self-induced psychological torture all the way down.
While the actual confession to Tricia goes well, Fielder is hiding his own secret from Kor. In order to keep Kor focused on the matter at hand, Fielder plants the answers to the trivia questions Kor will face that night on the daily walks they take together. It’s not technically cheating, but Fielder still feels guilty. But just as Nathan is about to come clean and apologize, the show switches to the Fake Kor he used in rehearsal. This fake Kor is shown acting out the worst-case scenario by verbally berating the man he thought was his friend.
When we cut back to the present, Fielder bails and doesn’t tell real Kor what he did. In case you’re not sure how to feel, the eerie sound of Gene Wilder singing “Pure Imagination” plays as Episode 1 fades to black in a callback to a scene earlier in the episode when Kor compared Fielder to Willy Wonka. Is Fielder a villain or a hero? Like Wonka, the participating The Rehearsal may wish they never found their golden ticket.
The Rehearsal isn’t a show about overpreparation. It’s about how seeing the worst possible option can force us to retreat. Taken to the extreme, risk avoidance may take all the danger out of life, but it sucks all the spontaneous joy away too. The result can be downright scary.
The Rehearsal is now streaming on HBO Max.