Are Shows Like Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal” Exploitative?

One man's appearance on the show has sparked debate on social media

Nathan Fielder in "The Rehearsal"
Nathan Fielder in "The Rehearsal"

Nathan Fielder’s new HBO show The Rehearsal, has earned a lot of buzz for its insanely ambitious concept — the show sees Fielder helping real-life people rehearse for big moments in their lives ahead of time with the assistance of paid actors and elaborate set pieces a la Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. It’s a funny, revealing show that revels in the awkwardness of everyday life, but after Vice published a piece this week in which a participant said he did “not enjoy his time on the show,” there’s been debate on social media over whether the series is exploitative.

The second episode of The Rehearsal, which aired last week, features a man named Robbin Stone who’s brought in as a potential suitor for Angela, a woman who is rehearsing what her life would be like if she were to have a baby. Stone spends much of the episode obsessing over every number he sees and pointing out their seemingly meaningless connections — at one point he looks at his car’s gas gauge and says, “Thirty-three miles ’til empty. Christ was crucified at 33” — and repeatedly mentioning the fact that he crashed his Scion tC while driving 100 mph but miraculously lived to tell the tale. Of course, it’s impossible to diagnose anyone based on what you see of them in a half hour of television, but those quirks still led some Twitter users to speculate over whether Stone might be mentally ill and how that’d impact the ethics of including him on the show.

“I think they really, like, changed my personality,” Stone told Vice. “The portrayal is just completely aimed at making me look bad.”

Of course, one might argue that Stone made himself look bad. One scene in particular from the episode sees Fielder repeatedly asking Stone, who had just hit a bong, whether he should be driving while high. Stone insists he does it all the time and it’s fine. Fielder points out he doesn’t have a license plate on his car and asks if he should have one, and Stone insists repeatedly that he doesn’t need one. In the very same Vice interview where he claims he was made to look bad, he tells the story behind that 100 mph Scion crash — details that were left out of The Rehearsal — and casually reveals that he was drunk and high at the time of the wreck. Would we say that the publication is “making him look bad” by publishing that information that he seems to have freely offered, apropos of nothing?

Is The Rehearsal exploitative of its subjects? Sure, maybe. But why are we singling out this one show for that crime — a show, it must be noted, that in theory is trying to help the people who appear on it — when all reality TV is exploitative? Producers give unforgiving edits, stir up drama and ply their cast members (many of whom are, yes, clearly grappling with some mental health issues) with booze all the time. Shows like Intervention or Hoarders are literally built around gawking at people whose substance abuse or mental illness has become debilitating to them. That doesn’t make it okay, obviously, but it’s sadly commonplace, to a point where anyone agreeing to appear on reality television should be at least vaguely aware of what they’re signing up for. Exploiting people for ratings isn’t a problem that begins or ends with Nathan Fielder, and it seems odd to single him out for it based on this one instance.

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