The Rehearsal S1E1: “Orange Juice, No Pulp”

Nathan Fielder sits at a bar with his hands together to the front of his face
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

The following contains spoilers for The Rehearsal S1E1, “Orange Juice, No Pulp” (written and directed by Nathan Fielder)

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what The Rehearsal shares in common with Nathan for You. If you’ve seen both, I think it’s obvious that they’re in the same wheelhouse, and it probably even makes sense to you without elaboration for me to say that The Rehearsal takes the whole thing up a notch, pushing it towards some kind of apotheosis. But what is “the whole thing” and what is “it”?

Both shows play in a space between the real and the contrived. In Nathan for You, Nathan Fielder plays a version of himself who hatches business plans for real businesses that clearly violate unwritten norms even if they don’t violate the law. I don’t know if this always means they are unethical, though they sometimes are. Regardless, it seems to me the humor of that show derives not so much from subverting moral sentiments but from simply pushing things into the space of the absurd, where our reasons for holding to unwritten norms come into question.

The business owner of course wants to make money and Nathan offers a plan to help them make money, and if the humor derives from the violation of social mores, it nonetheless lies more in the way Nathan never seems to understand either how he’s doing that or the mores themselves. He thinks he’s doing the right thing. How much of this is an act and how much pertains to who Nathan Fielder is in real life I couldn’t claim to know. All I know is that it makes really compelling television.

Nathan Fielder, dressed in black, stands near three doorways that are close together in The Rehearsal
A photo from the production of The Rehearsal in New York, N.Y., on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Photo: David M. Russell/HBO ©2020 HBO. All Rights Reserved

And The Rehearsal is even more compelling, as it makes a similar move but with regard to life itself. Nathan offers to help people rehearse for important events in their lives (or at least I presume this will continue to be the premise as we move forward from Episode 1), recreating the scenario in all of its detail, hiring actors to play the people who will be involved, and playing out every permutation of how things might go that they can conceive of as a possibility.

On top of this, he’s rehearsing events for himself, such that in S1E1 the narrative loops in on itself at multiple points. Nathan is helping Kor, but then we cut to Fake Kor—the actor Nathan has hired to play Kor—and indeed at the climax of the episode this appears to lead Nathan to decide to forego making his own confession to the real Kor.

All indications are that Kor and Tricia are real people, by the way. The credits for “Orange Juice, No Pulp” list the names of the actors playing the fake versions of each but nothing about the real ones. If there is something to puncture the conceit that the events of S1E1 are “real” I’m not aware of it as of yet.

Of course, in many ways the events aren’t real, insofar as Nathan makes a full-scale replica of the Alligator Lounge, down to the balloon in the corner. He tricks the trivia host into giving him the questions for the trivia night Kor will use as the scene to confess to Tricia, and hilariously implants the answers to the questions into Kor’s brain by hiring actors to play people on the street they encounter while walking together, who find ways to sneak in lines about who invented gunpowder and what the tallest building in the world is.

It’s all delightfully absurd, and while Nathan’s argument to himself that it would be wrong to not do all of this is ridiculous, his appeal to the idea of controlling for all of the variables is right in line with the very idea of the rehearsal in the first place.

It’s an appealing idea! Who hasn’t lamented how they failed to say the right thing or foresee how someone would react to what they said? We might even mentally rehearse important conversations on the horizon. I know I do, or used to until I realized things never went the way I’d imagined them in my head, or any of the ways I’d imagined. Instead, overthinking things beforehand tends to keep me from being able to go with the flow of how the conversation actually unfolds. In short, I’ve tended to find it makes things worse.

But taking this all to the extreme that Nathan does in The Rehearsal seems to work.

S1E1 is cut through with tension, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, wondering how it would ultimately go when Kor told Tricia that he didn’t really have a Master’s degree. He was worried about how she would react, and I was worried with him. And then I was worried that he might get too nervous and not go through with it.

The stakes here were small, but I was more enrapt by this tension than I can recall being by any fictional drama I have watched in a long time. And then, of course, it seems like it was no big deal to Tricia. Is this because the rehearsal was so effective, or would it have gone this way regardless?

Nathan looks over the shoulders of two people dressed in black wearing masks, who man a surveillance screen showing multiple video feeds
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

We can see that Nathan was considering a confession of his own, but I don’t doubt that Kor would have reacted much as Fake Kor (K. Todd Freeman) did to the news that Nathan had slipped him the trivia answers. I believe that Kor views trivia night as sacrosanct and would feel this as a deep betrayal, so it makes sense that Nathan decides not to relay this information. But we have to wonder now if The Rehearsal’s story is about to break into the real world, as presumably the real Kor will watch the episode and learn what happened.

It’s possible that this will be baked into the season of The Rehearsal itself in some way. I can’t claim to know. But given the way that Fielder clearly has an interest in blurring the lines between truth and fiction, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re in line for more of a Dumb Starbucks kind of situation in the near future, but with people’s lives, as the narrative of The Rehearsal bleeds over into everyday reality.

Presuming Tricia is a real person, how will she react to learning that Kor went through all of this to prepare for a conversation with her? And if this same premise continues in coming weeks, the same questions go for each and every person involved in this series.

As for the experience of The Rehearsal as a viewer, I’m pretty well hooked from this first episode. I’ll be curious to see whether we’re in line for a client of the week structure all the way through, or whether (or to what extent) the show will have some kind of throughline or narrative development, perhaps with regard to the questions I’ve just raised.

Either way, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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