Nathan Fielder Is a Bad Fake Dad in The Rehearsal

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more upsetting on television than the Nathan Fielder reality/comedy series The Rehearsal. News programs and documentaries, sure, but I’m not including those: reporting on tragedies isn’t the same as creating one, which Fielder does. The victim is a six-year-old fatherless child hired to call Fielder “Daddy” and treat him like a real parent, for the sake of Fielder’s curiosity, and, of course, his HBO Max series.

The show’s brilliant concept is that Fielder stages rehearsals of real-life events in order to anticipate any potential problems and correct them in advance. Fielder correctly notes that this can be a smart and positive way of reducing the anxiety in human interactions. When his plans work, the show is fantastic: In the first episode, Fielder builds a bar and stages a series of diabolically funny deceptions to help a man confess a secret to an old friend.

In later episodes, Fielder escalates his concept — at what must have been a ridiculous expense for HBO Max, and what seems to be a high emotional cost for many of the actors he hires to take part in his deceptions. To help a very religious woman named Angela rehearse for the possibility of parenthood, he hires a series of child actors who will pretend to be her son, from infancy through early adulthood. At first Nathan tries to find her a partner in the endeavor, and eventually he takes on the “father” role himself. They live together in an Oregon farmhouse meticulously designed for the series, decked out with fake crops and faux-homey touches.

The show makes great comedic use of the kids being switched out every few hours in accordance with child labor laws, which gives us the sense that Fielder thought carefully about their well-being. But the season finale, which aired this past weekend, shows that in at least one way, he was shockingly inconsiderate.

In the show’s fifth episode, Fielder clashes with Angela over religion and her level of commitment to his show. She exits the experiment, and Nathan takes over as the full-time fake parent to his coterie of fake children.

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Fielder explains in the finale that he especially hit it off with one six-year-old boy he hired, Remy. But when its time for Remy to leave The Rehearsal — his character is growing up, so he’s being replaced by a nine-year-old child actor — he doesn’t want to go. Remy’s mom explains that his real father is completely absent from his life, and that he’s sad that kids at school have dads at home and he doesn’t. He calls Nathan “Daddy” not only during filming, but also off-set, at home. He says he loves him. And why not? It seems that Nathan is the only “daddy” Remy has known.

Nathan tries to remedy the situation, seeking out assurances from the boy’s mom that he’ll be OK, and stays tangentially in his life. At one point he brings Remy’s replacement over to Remy’s house to play with him, and underline Nathan’s point that it’s all just acting, right?

Satisfied that he’s done what he can, Nathan undergoes a series of re-enactments to think about what went wrong — acting out scenarios he maybe should have, you know, rehearsed before bringing any real children into The Rehearsal. (Fielder declined an interview request.)

Nathan Fielder Is a Bad Fake Dad in The Rehearsal

Nathan Fielder outside his fake home in The Rehearsal.

Nathan seems more worried about his own feelings than Remy’s: Maybe he decided, perhaps wisely, that it was best to get out of the boy’s life before doing any more damage. But scenes of his re-enactments seem to suggest, without spelling it out, that Remy’s mother made miscalculations, too.

It’s a classless and tacky thing to suggest about a single mother on national stage, especially given that there’s no precedent for the kind of weird experiment Fielder attempted with her kid: How could any of the parents involved imagine the extent of the weirdness their young actors were signing up for?

One of the main changes of parenthood is learning to put a helpless child’s priorities ahead of your own, which is a constant balancing act: If you don’t get enough sleep, can you be alert to protect your child? If you don’t spend enough time at work, can you afford to support them? No amount of rehearsal could ever be enough. But even the most ardent narcissist learns that you need to put your kids first, a lot of the time.

Maybe the strong feelings I felt at the end of The Rehearsal are exactly what Fielder wants us to feel. Maybe he wants to inspire real parents to try harder. Maybe Remy is only acting like a hurt child, disappointed by his real dad and his fake one. Maybe he even has a father figure we’ve never met. I desperately hope so.

The show raises lots of highfalutin’ questions: What can you rehearse and what can’t you? What is a real relationship vs. a fake one? What are the limits of acting? But I don’t care about any of those questions: The Rehearsal hurt a child. The most charitable read is that it intentionally pretended to hurt a child. The cruelty doesn’t justify the questions, or the comedy.

Main image: Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal.