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“The Rehearsal” Is a Brilliant Look at Behavior Manipulation

You will laugh, cringe, and learn about the limits of controlled experiments.

Key points

  • In "The Rehearsal," creator Nathan Fielder helps people rehearse for life events by elaborately recreating them with sets and actors.
  • The show is hilarious due to its ridiculous premise, but sometimes poignant and profound.
  • The absurdity of the show's concept highlights one of the core problems of trying to generalize behavior from controlled, artificial experiments.

Marathon runners train for months to prepare for their races. Why not treat ordinary life the same way?

Courtesy of HBO.
Nathan Fielder in "The Rehearsal".
Source: Courtesy of HBO.

That’s essentially the premise of The Rehearsal, an amazing new series that begins streaming on HBO Max on Friday, July 15. In the show, creator Nathan Fielder and his production team go to absurdly elaborate lengths to simulate difficult situations, like an uncomfortable conversation, that real people want to prepare for.

The objective? Rehearse every possible permutation of the situation, so they are as prepared for the real thing as an athlete is for a marathon.

The show is ultimately a comedy, and it is frequently very funny. Much of the comedy stems from Fielder’s obsessive and dead-serious commitment to the show’s inherently ludicrous premise–one episode opens with a tense scene in which a team of production assistants led by Fielder race against the clock (Why? We don’t know) to swap a baby with an identically dressed replacement out of a nursery window for reasons that are only explained later.

If The Rehearsal were just a bunch of absurdly elaborate schemes like these, it would still be an impressive achievement rather than breaking new ground. It would feel like Fielder had simply taken his previous show, Nathan for You, which aired on Comedy Central for four seasons between 2013 and 2017, and cranked it up to 11.

Nathan for You, a brilliant and criminally under-watched show that featured Nathan helping small businesses with (usually terrible) new ideas, also had an affinity for executing absurdly complicated solutions to simple problems. In some ways, The Rehearsal is just Nathan for You on steroids, and fans of Nathan for You will love this new show. But it offers more.

There are fewer laughs and more moments of genuine poignancy. In one episode, a man rehearses a difficult conversation with a friend dozens of times. Yet, when the real thing happens, it doesn’t go as expected, in a good way. There are even moments when the show gets unusually reflective and meta, blurring the lines of what’s real and what’s a simulation and questioning the value of the entire project.

It's moments like this where The Rehearsal really shines, and it feels like it has something more profound to say, some of it about human psychology.

The Rehearsal and the Limits of Behavioral Intervention

It was clear during Nathan for You that Fielder was interested in psychology. In a recent profile of Fielder for Vulture, Lila Shapiro wrote, "'There’s a real Milgram quality to Nathan,'” said the actor and comedian H. Jon Benjamin, referring to Stanley Milgram, the eccentric and visionary psychologist known for a notorious study of obedience...“'It always seemed like he was from another planet learning how to do human customs.'”

In Nathan for You, he showed how easily people could be manipulated into agreeing to things due to their inherent desire not to be disagreeable, especially in the presence of a TV crew.

In The Rehearsal, I believe he is showing us the limits of this kind of intervention on human behavior. Despite creating nearly perfect simulacra of the real world, like someone’s house or a bar, populating them with look-alike actors, and rehearsing a single event repeatedly, it’s instantly obvious, while watching, that almost nothing useful will be learned during the exercise.

This incidentally serves as a pointed critique of much of the lab-based studies that have dominated the field of psychology for most of its existence. Researchers frequently try to understand human behavior with artificial lab studies, which are now often done online. How confident should we be that these results will generalize to everyday situations?

In 2020, a prominent group of psychologists led by Hans IJzerman argued that most psychology research is still too preliminary to base policy recommendations on, stating, “Even… after assessing evidence quality of primary studies, we have little way of knowing how much positive, or unintended negative, consequences an intervention might have when applied to a new situation.”

After watching The Rehearsal, we could revise that conclusion. Even after rehearsing a conversation dozens of times, we have little way of knowing what positive or unintended negative consequences it might have when having it with a non-actor for real.

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