July 29, 2022

Television

When art imitates life: ‘The Rehearsal’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal. Image supplied/HBO

Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal. Image supplied/HBO

Nathan Fielder’s unhinged new series, probing what would happen if there really was a dress rehearsal for life, leads this month’s streaming highlights

The Rehearsal (Binge) is an audacious comedy that seeks to simulate life’s events so that participants can test their fears in advance. It is jaw-dropping, funny and horrifying, but not always in that order. This is a show where emotional doubt is met with decision charts, an approach that is alternately droll and alarming. The creator and host, Canadian comic Nathan Fielder, previously fronted Nathan for You, a docu-comedy where the socially awkward Fielder tried to inspire struggling business owners with often disastrous results. His new show takes that approach to dryly unhinged extremes, complete with mordant exchanges. “You’re a Willy Wonka,” marvels one participant to Fielder. “But kids died in the factory,” he replies.

In the first episode, Fielder assists a New Yorker who wants to confess that he lied about his academic qualifications to his trivia team. Fielder does this by building a detailed replica of the Brooklyn bar where the team meet, filling it with actors, and running through possible reactions complete with simulated distractions. At one point, Fielder decides he needs to know the answers to the trivia questions and goes undercover on a side mission to obtain them. God complexes are usually grandiose, but this one is nebbish and micro-managed. The bulk of the six episodes involves a woman who wants to test out parenthood, so in league with Fielder they rent a rural house and play with a child actor, who is intermittently swapped out for an older version. It’s difficult to explain how a Christian numerologist becomes involved, but it doesn’t end well.

Throughout, Fielder lurks with intent, innocently intruding on the quests to manipulate his guests and stoke the excruciating awkwardness. Based on the show’s creative architecture and obsessiveness, there’s never been a series like The Rehearsal, but it also comes with a degree of melancholy and even mawkishness as Fielder wrestles with the emotional ramifications of his situational replicas for his life-sized models. Master shots often capture him in quiet contemplation of his simulations, as if the show is really meant to help him understand life itself. This helps to ground the absurd tableaux and laugh-out-loud details that steadily proliferate. I’m not entirely convinced how authentic all of this show is (counterargument: it is America), but whatever genre this truly is, it’s often unforgettable.

Set in 2024 during a British general election campaign, The Undeclared War (Stan) is a ticking-clock cyber thriller that begins with an attack on the UK’s digital infrastructure. (In a prescient stroke, we learn that Boris Johnson was deposed the year prior.) Created by Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall), the limited series depicts the quiet hum of online state security, seen through the eyes (and programming) of intern Saara Parvin (Hannah Khalique-Brown). “Let it loose,” Simon Pegg’s supervisor says of a piece of targeted malware, and there’s an undercurrent of code being humanised and humans being reduced to coding. The show tries too hard to be a thriller – for one thing, the score is intrusive – but as a study of brilliant but fractured people, including Mark Rylance’s veteran programmer, it verges on the compelling.

The fourth season of Stranger Things (Netflix) accumulated more than 1 billion total hours of viewing, a figure so elevated that it mostly obscured the science-fiction horror show’s many failings. In a series rife with parallel dimensions and otherworldly monsters, Matt and Ross Duffer’s creation is a Frankenstein exercise in cultural assemblage, pillaging the movies and popular culture memories of the 1980s for a repetitive narrative about the struggle between a group of teenage misfits and their supernatural adversaries. This season has too many storylines that take too long to acquire relevance; it is a wildly expensive engine merely idling. It’s also lost one of its genuine original charms: the adolescent authenticity of its scrappy middle-school leads. This season conjured up one hero after another, with some triumphs exultant and others textbook.

In brief: With the sublime Irma Vep (Binge) concluding, July also saw the launch of Black Bird (Apple TV+), an emotionally telling jailhouse thriller created by American crime novelist Dennis Lehane. Based on real-life events, it is the story of a convicted drug dealer (Taron Egerton) offered his freedom if he can befriend and extract a confession from a suspected serial killer (Paul Walter Hauser). What starts as a tale of deception becomes a study in toxic male bonding, as the intimacy between the pair reveals their mutual misogyny. The Terminal List (Amazon) is a humourless, uninspired revenge thriller for people convinced that the “deep state” is real, with Chris Pratt as a US Navy SEAL trying to uncover the conspiracy behind a failed mission in Syria. Finally, there are few comedies more highly regarded than The Larry Sanders Show (Binge), Garry Shandling’s masterpiece about the emotional machinations and venal need behind a successful network television talk show. The HBO series aired between 1992 and 1998, and now that it’s finally available to stream in full, it remains hilariously uncomfortable viewing.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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