Nathan Fielder’s new show The Rehearsal covers myriad topics, including secrets, emotional repression, social anxiety, connecting with other human beings, and parenthood.
As with many Fielder projects, it’s meta-textual and voyeuristic in a way that breeds deep discomfort in the viewer. It’s a comedy show that lives on cringey moments where we watch people who we can’t believe live in this world espouse ideas we never imagined people could think.
But in the making of this show, Nathan Fielder stumbles on something that the show never meant to tackle: religious fundamentalism.
Nathan Fielder is Jewish. He’s not very vocal about it. He mentions that he stopped going to temple because it was “boring.” In fact, the only time he discusses his religion is when it’s brought up by others.
Which means that he has to talk about his religion, fairly often, in The Rehearsal.
The basic premise of the show: Nathan, who is deeply socially awkward, would love the opportunity to prepare for big life events by rehearsing them in advance, so he wants to give others the opportunity to do the same.
He helps a man who has lied to his trivia group about his education, helps a woman prepare for motherhood, and helps a man trying to convince his brother to give him his grandfather’s inheritance. Along the way, we get to laugh at the startling reality of these people and how they behave in absurd circumstances. His comedy has always been based around cringe moments of pseudo-reality.
But in his new show, Nathan Fielder is forced to make satire out of religious zealotry and bigotry.
Nathan’s second experiment is with Angela, a woman who wants to be a mother but hasn’t met the right person to settle down with. Nathan gets her a house in Oregon and goes through the logistical ordeal of having child actors rotate in and out constantly so that she can experience motherhood without actually giving birth.
Angela is, in polite terms, quite religious.
After what she describes as a dark past of drinking and drugs, she has thrown herself into Christianity. At one point, Nathan and a child actor dress up for Halloween. Instead of being excited for them, Angela explains to Nathan that Halloween is when Satanic rituals are performed. Despite the evidence Nathan provides to the contrary, she’s adamant: Satanism is everywhere.
One of the only times Nathan loses his composure is when Angela barrages him a list of the many things in the world run by Satanists. It’s on perhaps her fourth rant about occultists that Nathan finally asks if she could write down a list of all the things that are occult rituals so he can keep track.
One part of the experiment involves finding her a man to help her raise a family. When she meets a man she likes, he is just as much of a fundamentalist as she is.
Every number is a reference to the Bible. There are a million cosmic coincidences that only he can see. He also smokes weed before he drives and by his own admission never uses condoms during sex. When Nathan visits his home, he finds the man fighting with his roommate because the roommate is tired of being barraged with constant talk about the Bible.
Suddenly it seems that religion crops up in every episode. Why? A big reason is the new setting.
The Pacific Northwest is one of the whitest parts of the United States, and despite the highest overall proportions of nonreligious people in the country, it also has large swaths of extreme religious fundamentalism. Oregon had Black-exclusion laws that discouraged Black settlers and entered the union as a “whites-only” state. The KKK saw some of their biggest political wins in the Northwest, and neo-Nazism thrives there to this day. The idea that places like Portland are liberal beacons is complicated both by history and by recent events.
This is why, when he’s assisting a man in rehearsing for the conversation with his brother about their grandfather’s inheritance, the man casually mentions that his girlfriend can’t be a gold-digger because she’s a “Jew”, and “you know how Jews are with money.”
The religious tension comes to a head when Nathan, now moved into the house to help Angela raise their fake child, wants to introduce the child to Judaism. She flatly denies him the chance to do so—then explains that her favorite movie is Apocalypto.
So he does it secretly.
He starts taking their fake child to a Jewish teacher. The teacher eventually confronts Angela, which leads to a deeply uncomfortable argument.
Soon this conflict leads to Angela leaving the show because she can’t compromise her values. But she was never asked to compromise her values. She was only asked to also introduce another set of values.
If that isn’t Christian supremacy masked behind a polite façade, then nothing is.
Even with the child actor who portrays Nathan’s fake son, a conflict comes up with the actor’s mother, who asks Nathan to explain to their son that he’s not Jewish. When Nathan satirically explains that Judaism is made up and that he’s going to hell, the actor’s mother firmly agrees.
But the show isn’t merely about antisemitism and that (despite reports to the contrary) it is alive and well. It becomes about the pushy, illogical nature of any religious fundamentalism.
After Angela leaves, and his fake son’s Jewish teacher comes over to celebrate Hanukkah, she has a conversation with Nathan. This conversation didn’t need to be included in the show. Were the show merely interested in the attacks on Judaism, it would’ve been removed.
In this scene, the Jewish teacher corners Nathan about the Palestinian conflict and how the media favors them, informing Nathan that he needs to support Israel. When he refuses to be drawn into the conversation, she pesters him about using the show as a platform to support Israel until he finally has to change the topic.
Nathan Fielder’s works have never wanted to examine religion. They haven’t needed to. His show is not like Borat, using the satirical docu-style to bring out the true feelings of bigotry in the unseen parts of the US.
But in this part of the country, where despite the region’s crunchy reputation Christian supremacy and intolerance of all kinds continue to crop up, the show has to address it. Nathan seems either bored or disinterested in religion. He only wants to include it in his fake child’s life because he’s prompted by his parents because he so rarely stands up for himself in relationships.
The show inadvertently shows that the growing religious Christian fundamentalism in the United States can no longer be ignored. It’s in the almost anti-socially pushy people who are convinced that everything is a sign, and deny the basic reality of facts. Just as Borat showed, in key moments, the roiling anti-Muslim hatred post-9/11.
The Rehearsal shows that if people can be this comfortable with their religious fundamentalism, then Christian supremacy might already be here.