(Spoiler warning: We’re about to reveal plot details from both Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal and Albert Brooks’s 1979 comedy Real Life. In the case of Real Life, you’ve had 40-some years to get caught up, but even still, here’s your chance to turn back.)

The first season of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is over but the heated conversation continues.  We’re still parsing the aftermath of a show that stirred up more unpracticed turmoil than even Fielder’s usual brand of uncomfortable cringe. If you’re looking for a night of light-heated HBO fun, be warned that online commentary is throwing around words like “cruel,” “arrogant,” and “manipulative.” (It gets worse on Reddit.)

But it’s not like we weren’t warned.  Albert Brooks laid out the blueprint for Fielder’s bizarro social experiment in his second (entirely fictional) feature, 1979’s Real Life

Paramount Pictures

Charles Grodin agreed to Fisher Price hair for filming. 

Ostensibly a spoof of the groundbreaking PBS documentary The American Family, Brooks’s satire is often held up as a prophetic vision of the creepy reality television that dominates our screens.  But with The Rehearsal, we can see how eerily prescient Brooks was all along.  Look at all the ways this comedy Nostradamus saw Fielder’s (and our) future.

It’s the story of a comedian playing a comedian.

In The Rehearsal, Fielder stars as popular comedian “Nathan Fielder.”  But the show he’s creating isn’t that funny -- instead, he hopes to overcome his own awkwardness by recreating reality as a series of rehearsals, a playground in which anxious people can practice difficult social interactions.  It’s constructed fiction posing as reality … right?  At least, that’s what we’re supposed to think, but it’s hard to know where the construct ends and the reality begins.

In Real Life, Brooks stars as popular comedian “Albert Brooks.” But the movie-in-a-movie he’s creating isn’t that funny -- instead, he recognizes that “the most hilarious comedy, the most gripping drama, the most suspenseful disasters, they don't happen on the movie screen.”  Instead, argues Brooks, “they happen in my backyard and yours.”  At least, that’s what we’re supposed to think.  But where does Brooks’s construct end and his reality begin?

The director inserts himself into the story more than originally planned.

Fielder’s original concept is to help strangers overcome obstacles by providing “rehearsal space,” but eventually, it’s Fielder’s own failures that creep into the storylines. By the time wannabe-mama Angela enlists to rehearse parenthood, Field decides to insert himself into the experiment as well. Chaos ensues.

Brooks’s original concept is to capture reality as it actually exists until he discovers that compelling narrative doesn’t just write itself.  When characters don’t behave in satisfying story arcs, Brooks invites them to intimate dinners or dresses as a clown, all in an attempt to goose the action in more dramatic directions. Chaos ensues.

The “actors” fall in love with the “comedian.”

   

The heartbreak of The Rehearsal is the moment when Remy, the six-year-old actor playing one version of Fielder’s pretend-son Adam, won’t leave the set. The lines have blurred--Pretend Daddy feels an awful lot like Real Daddy and Remy can’t tell the difference.

Blow Out Productions

“You know I’m not your real dad, right? We’re just acting, you know that, right?” Call Social Services!

The heartbreak in Real Life is the moment when Jeannette, wife and mother of the movie’s featured family, kisses Brooks on the mouth. The lines have blurred -- Sympathetic Director feels an awful lot like Sensitive Available Man and Jeannette can no longer tell the difference. 

The whole thing seems like a terrible mistake.

Both media and social critics have taken shots at Fielder.  While The Rehearsal wasn’t shy about Fielder’s methods being ethically suspect, writes Slate’s Sam Adams, the show’s final turns make “it feel like things might actually be as bad as they seem.”  Forget the show’s meta-commentary, argues The Ringer’s Alison Herman.  “It is possible to exploit even as you critique exploitation.”

The fictional social scientists monitoring Brooks’s work in Real Life are just as alarmed.  One of the film’s consultants, Dr. Ted Cleary, quits the production and writes a tell-all book in protest.  Putting real people through that kind of torture, writes Cleary, constitutes “mind control” and “psychological rape.” 

In Real Life, psychological experts like Cleary convince the movie’s producers that they must pull the plug. The emotional damage to the film’s subjects just isn’t worth it.

Turns out, that’s the one thing Brooks couldn’t foresee. Because in Nathan Fielder’s real life? The Rehearsal is greenlit for Season 2. 

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