Until a decade ago, anyone who wanted to watch international TV shows, beyond the meagre offerings of cable television in India, had two choices. They could learn to loosen either their purse strings or their morals. The former choice led to DVD box sets which offered legitimacy, but their steep pricing and limited availability often made the latter option — involving the dark arts of torrents and Pirate Bay — more alluring. External HDDs and Pen Drives brimming with “downloaded” movies and shows would switch hands from one delinquent viewer to another, offering them a window to a world that would never reach the programmes on their TV channels.
This age of piracy would (by and large) end with the advent of streaming platforms. The latest award-winning shows could now be viewed — often contemporaneously with the rest of the world — at just the touch of a button. These cornucopias of content have not only solved the viewers’ ethical dilemma but also offered the joy of discovery. There is a peculiar thrill in stumbling across a movie or TV show without having read a review, watched a trailer, or even known of its existence, and yet be captivated by it; perhaps even adding it to the list of things one keeps returning to, and re-watching, from time to time. Such serendipitous moments can (almost) make the hours of aimless browsing feel worthwhile, particularly when it leads one to discover an act of groundbreaking creation, like Nathan Fielder’s mind-bending, meta-reality show, The Rehearsal.
Who has not fretted over a difficult conversation they needed to have with a friend or a relative, trying to foresee which way it would go? Who has not lost sleep over an interaction gone wrong, obsessing over the minute details and replaying the scene in their heads to imagine what they could have done differently? Who has not wished they had another opportunity — equipped with the wisdom of retrospect — to make things right? In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Nathan Fielder’s genius was to apply this aphorism to human relationships.
The baldest description of the show would be to say that it is a humorous documentary about people who rehearse conversations (that are uncomfortable or confrontational) and role-play experiences (such as parenthood), to prepare them for the real thing. But over the course of six episodes, the show transcends the boundaries of genre comedy and charts a path from the absurd to the metaphysical.
It starts innocuously enough with a man wanting to rehearse a confession to his bar trivia teammate about not having a master’s degree. The premise is intriguing but it is Fielder’s ludicrous obsession with the details that makes it a compelling watch. For instance, in an attempt to recreate the environment where the interaction is to take place, he builds a full-scale replica of a bar and runs various iterations of the conversation between the man and an actor (posing as his friend) to prepare him for every possible scenario. In later episodes, he starts an acting class – teaching the “Fielder Method” – to train and recruit new actors who can perform in the simulations he concocts. In order to judge his own capabilities as an instructor, he replicates the acting class and pretends to be one of the students, while another actor takes his own place. As Fielder (the trainer) urges his wards to get underneath the skin of their subjects to make the simulations more realistic, he simultaneously tries to live the life of the student he chose to imitate — even going so far as to live in this student’s home.
It is when Fielder takes on a project to help a woman — Angela — go through the experience of raising a child, that the lines between reality and make-believe truly begin to blur. Fielder participates as a co-parent in the mock family, where the son (played by multiple child actors) grows from being a toddler to a teenager in a matter of days. As their “son” gets older, Fielder and Angela clash over his religious upbringing, each preferring to raise him as per their own (real-life) faith. The conflict ultimately leads to Angela exiting the project and Fielder commits himself to the role of playing the single father.
In the season finale (titled ‘Pretend Daddy’), Fielder is confronted with the jarring consequences of his elaborate ruses when he discovers that one of the child actors he worked with — Remy — has started thinking of him as his “real” father. In a heart-wrenching sequence, Fielder is contrite and repentant as he consoles Remy and tries to explain to him that their relationship was play-acting. You would expect the show to end with this chastising experience and for Fielder to have realised the folly of pursuing his desperate quest for control, for omniscience. But of course, it doesn’t.
In the final moments of the show, Fielder stages yet another recreation where he plays the part of Remy’s mother. A group of actors replay the sequence of events which led to Remy’s selection as one of the child actors on the show. To understand why Remy began to think of him as his “real” father, Fielder (in the role of Remy’s mother) observes (an actor playing) Remy interact with (an actor playing) himself. At the end of the episode, when Fielder — still in character as Remy’s mother — tells (fake) Remy, “I’m your dad”, you are left questioning your own perception of reality.
Earlier this year, when premium HBO content migrated from Disney + Hotstar to Viacom (Jio Cinemas), The Rehearsal appeared to have fallen through the cracks. Perhaps lacking the fame of more popular titles, like Succession, House of Dragons, The White Lotus, etc., delayed its journey across platforms. Happily enough, the show has now resurfaced on Jio Cinemas in recent weeks. What better reason could there be, as we wait for Season 2, to return to this overlooked gem?
The writer is a Mumbai-based lawyer