Can you ever be authentic if you are paralyzed by your own self-awareness?
As I ask myself this question every day, I’m writing it down today because that’s what I was wondering when I finished the fourth episode of Nathan Fielder’s genre-defying series. Repetition. Apparently, the non-fiction show is billed as following the Nat for you creator/star as he helps “regular people” rehearse pivotal moments in their lives (difficult conversations with siblings or trivial pals, the challenges of parenthood, for example). Only, with each subsequent episode, that provocative premise (who wouldn’t want coaching and a full-fledged production team helping you test out every kind of twist a messy chat with a loved one could take? ) turned into something a lot more ambitious. But also, something much more insidious.
To be fair, it was there from the start. After introducing us to Kor, whom Fielder ultimately helped, the show revealed that how its host was so successful that the first interaction with this willing participant was because he hired an actor and beta tested this back and forth until exhaustion. . Namely, while the rehearsals in the show would be centered on people willing to be helped by the kind of production budget HBO can affordit was already clear the very vanity of Repetition was, in large part, the result of how Fielder himself wishes he could live his life. As someone who often has sleepless nights reliving silly things I’ve said on the go with friends (“Oh my God, I really should have said X instead…. Othat they must be thinking of me now!”), I understand Fielder’s momentum – aand his desire to extend such comfort blanket of experience to his various guests.
But training in real life just isn’t practical. After all, any simulation will necessarily be a lesser copy. By definition, it can never be the real thing. He can only make an approximation. And Fielder seems determined to make his rehearsals as authentic as possible, which requires a degree of storytelling that necessarily pushes him into ethically murky territory. He’s someone who sets up a fake theater school in Los Angeles where he encourages potential actors to stalk people to better impersonate them and who, without a shred of irony (I think? Or is he that good as an actor?) tells the class that this is the kind of concert where, if you get it wrong, you could ruin someone’s life.
This whole scene and the questions it raises are also on Fielder’s mind. This is why he then sets up not a repetition but a recreationn of this first class, so that he could better understand the many concerns of his students. Here, he once again inserts himself into this life exercise as an actor that he has concocted all along. OOnly this time he is not just a participant. He became an actor. Thomas, actually. I’ll admit the sight of Fielder in a wig(!) made me laugh. But not as loudly as when, later in the episode, Fielder and Thomas share the following exchange, after the budding actor confesses to Fielder why he’s struggling with his assignment:
“I don’t like lying to people,” says Thomas.
And then, as deadpan as possible, Fielder responds with the following: “No, neither do I.”
It’s the kind of moment that seems so absurd that I couldn’t help but double. But in that laugh I recognized the bait and the switch Repetition keep shooting at us. Because I believe Fielder when he says he doesn’t like to lie. Only he knows it’s a necessary part of his job. His mission, even.
But this whole experience, where he tried to become Thomas to better understand himself and his own class, struck me as taking this whole premise too far. It’s getting harder and harder to keep track of this nesting doll of a proposal, but one thing remains clear: Tit’s an exploration of Nathan Fielder’s own method of madness. This makes the choice to reshape Adam’s own growth/personality when he returns to Eagle Creek all the easier to understand. It ceased to be an exercise in the service of Angela. It will now remain squarely in the service of Fielder’s own interests. I hesitate to try to attach words like “selfishness” and “solipsism” to these choices, but when you’re orchestrating a fake opiate overdose to better capture how a teenager would react if a father figure had been gone for years because that’s the story as you lived it, you have to wonder where it all ends up directed.
Which is to say: I can’t be the only one horrified by this episode, can I? And also terrified of how Fielder must be acutely aware of how terrifying he is. Which brings me back to this question about self-awareness, which keeps nagging at me. There is such an investment in authenticity in all these “rehearsals,Still, Fielder can never get out of his head. Hit seeks emotional veracity (in itself as it requires of its actors and therefore of its participants), but it all seems like it’s forever out of reach for him. Is that why he is so much more comfortable in these “rehearsals” when he is there himself? Are we building to a point where the falsehoods around him cease to be crutches and risk becoming the real thing? Is it intentionally trying to drive us crazy by reminding us how performative our daily lives are? I guess we’ll find out next week.
- “Did you take cocaine? may be the line from the episode. Fingers in the nose.
- I loved the visual fulfillment at end of the episode (the slide transition) and I love that Fielder kept the teenage actor playing Adam coming out of the slide (“Is that it?”) and breaking any verisimilitude version that the fantastic transformation could have created. We are in Brechtian territory here, after all.
- As much as I am fascinated by the thematic concerns of Repetition, I’m equally intrigued by his own logistics. I wondered, for example, how Fielder & Co. happened to use Eagle Creek, Oregon as their home base. What was it about this community that made it so well suited to these various rehearsals? Fielder notes that Eagle Creek had a lot to offer only to show us, in a John Wilson-esque flourish, images of two signs: a makeshift one that reads “We’ve got eggs now” (above another that reads “BROWN EGGS”) and a more professional looking “Pole Buildings” advertisement. Likewise, and especially during this truly WTF OD moment, I kept wondering just how controlling Fielder was. We saw how he is so involved…did he know the overdose was coming? (Did Angèle?) And if he did, what was the use?
- I’m still caught out by the fact that the denim jacket that Thomas wears on his first day at Nathan’s studio has, on the back, an image of a fluffy cat with the words “Eat Me” engraved on it. I don’t know what to do with this information other than to note how framed it is. Iit’s hard to miss—but also difficult to understand. Ia fictional show, I would point out how this can tell us anything about Thomas but honestly I don’t know what I would say about such a costume choice other than it helps to confuse more who Thomas is as an individual. (Also, again, I want a full interview with the many actors who participated in the show, either as themselves during those classes or as performers during the actual rehearsals because…I have questions!)
- An aside: I agree with Fielder, actors can be very intimidating. Also, barry crossing when?
- I ask you all, once again, to look Synecdoche, New York. And I’ll stop suggesting you do it when I stop writing “How Kaufman-esque!” in my notes after each episode.