Think of the greatest performance you’ve ever seen on TV. Think of how the performer just commands every scene to whatever emotion or payoff is desired by the script. Think of how every other performer in the scene seems to revolve around that singular performer, how they all live and die on that performer’s intuitions. Think of how even the smallest things the performer does tells you everything you need to know about their character. Now forget all that, because the greatest TV performance you’ve seen is actually not the greatest, but it’s probably close. The greatest performance on TV is actually on a reality show – albeit one that plays with the very notion of what reality is.
Currently in its wonderful fourth season, Nathan for You is a bizarre hybrid of a hidden camera show combined with a home makeover show with a dash of social experiments. Think Bar Rescue meets Tim and Eric. In each episode, Nathan Fielder helps out a struggling small business in the greater Los Angeles area with totally bizarre business ideas/plans that tend to border on the “technically legal, don’t ask questions” end of the scale. Some great ideas include selling alcohol to minors but not letting them open it or leave the store with it – instead they can claim the alcohol when they are 21 – or when he tries to promote a local mechanic by having them take a lie detector test when they are giving a quote to the customer so they know they aren’t getting ripped off. Sometimes they end up working in a totally backwards way. For example, in the first episode he helps a frozen yogurt place by having them sell a poop flavored yogurt. Surprisingly it works, there are long lines or people who just want to know what poop tastes like in yogurt form. Perhaps his most notorious scheme was “Dumb Starbucks”, a fake Starbucks that tried to use parody law to allow them to profit off the Starbucks brand by just adding “dumb” in front of everything.
Sometimes he’ll dodge the small business angle to pursue bizarre ideas to improve his life and standing. For example, he tries to get over his social anxiety around women via immersion therapy by dating several at once, so to do that he creates and films an entire fake Bachelor-like dating show called “The Hunk.” Or on another episode he combats the notion that he doesn’t take any risks by staging an event where he must pick the lock of his handcuffs in a minute before a robotic arm exposes himself to a group of children. The idea is if he fails he’ll forever be labeled a pedophile, therefore he’s taking the greatest risk possible. Yes, at times you find yourself asking how high the budget for this show can possibly be.
The constant throughout whatever zany direction he takes the episode is the helplessly awkward and boring persona – one recurring guest calls him “The Wizard of Loneliness” – he’s created. I’ve never seen somebody dictate reality around him with such control and unwillingness to break character. He knows how to act around people to his desired effect by having no clue how to act around people. You can tell Nathan is playing a slightly heightened version of himself, but the brilliance is that you’re never sure just how heightened it really is. Sometimes you think this is just him, it’s just so hard to tell what’s real and what’s scripted when it comes to Nathan for You because it rises above that dichotomy.
One of my favorite distillations of how his “character” can wring the most comedy and tragedy out of interactions with others comes in the episode where Nathan uses a theatrical loophole to allow smokers to smoke inside of a bar by presenting it as a two act play. Nathan gets really caught up in the perfection of it, and recreates it all with actors as a legitimate play this time. One table includes a young couple on a date where the girl says to the guy “I love you.” When rehearsing with the actors, Nathan puts himself in place of the guy and has the actress say the “I love you” line to him. He’s transfixed. “Again” he commands. She repeats it, keeping the same emotion. “Again” he commands. She repeats it, and it goes like this for a solid minute, with her repeating “I love you” emotionally while Nathan tries to convince himself of the reality of the moment to the point where he sheds a tear. Nathan Fielder has the ability to author the reality he’s presenting to the point of maximum comedy. There’s no script, but Nathan can create one just by living in this characterization of himself he’s created, and this sequence is a prime example of his extraordinary abilities.
I’ve included the link below. Behold.
Sometimes Nathan will take his desire to author reality to obsessive levels. One of the best episodes this season revolves around Nathan going on Kimmel and delivering one of those celebrity “Listen to this crazy story that happened to me” anecdotes. He discovers that they all follow a similar formula, so he comes up with the greatest possible version he can to tell. But because it’s Nathan, he has to make it all actually happen. The story goes that he travels out of town for a wedding, accidentally grabs the wrong suitcase and is forced to wear a suit way too big for him to the wedding after contacting the actual owner of the suitcase. On his way, he gets pulled over by the cops after he finds a chalky, powdery substance in a baggy in the jacket pocket. He then calls the suit’s owner who tells the cop it’s his mother’s ashes. The cop lets Nathan off and he goes to the wedding in the super large suit.
Nathan actually makes sure all of that happens so nobody can prove his story false. It’s incredible. He starts by convincing a couple about to be married to let him come to his wedding under the pretense that he’s part of a reality show about researching weddings. He then goes on craigslist to find somebody to let him wear their suit and use their mother’s ashes. It’s ridiculous how many takers he gets. He finds one with the perfect size suit – David Byrne levels too big for him – but the dude’s mother is still alive. He then asks the mother if he can take some hair, toenail clippings and dead skin from her feet to cremate – and she is totally fine with it somehow. When it comes to the pull over, he hires a cop to pull him over and provides him a script to read from.
There’s a part in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back where Tom Cruise tells a bad guy over the phone that he’s going to break his arms, then he’s going to break his legs and then he’s going to break his neck. Later in the film, he does exactly that. You know how much determination and obsession that takes to deliver on that threat? I almost passed out in the theater. Watching Nathan deliver on this zany talk show anecdote was a lot like watching Cruise deliver on his threat – you just can’t believe he actually made it a reality. Only Nathan Fielder could go as far as he does to script his reality to perfection.
This makes it even better on the rare occasion he does break character, when the scene is beyond his control and something he can’t author. Take the ghost realtor episode for example – where he helps Sue, a local realtor rebrand herself as guaranteeing her properties are ghost free – there’s a key 2 scenes where he can’t believe what he’s witnessing even though he got it to this point. When he’s having a medium walk through a house with himself and the ghost realtor to determine if the house is haunted, Sue brings up the fact that she was attacked by an incubus one night in Switzerland. Nathan is genuinely taken aback, he did not plan for it at all. He shows genuine concern and shock of the new information.
Later on in the episode, he loses control of the reality once again to truly bizarre ends. He has a priest come to bless the house, and Sue ends up taking the priest’s offer to perform an exorcism just for safety. He starts talking to the demons that may be inside her, and unbelievably the demons start responding. She starts sweating profusely and cowers away from the priest, yelling “NO!” at him when he tells the demons to leave her body. Nathan has no clue how to react. He is absolutely stunned, which is a rare thing to happen to him on Nathan For You. There’s almost a look of “oh shit, I hope we don’t get sued for this” on his face. Ever aware of how his character can affect the comedy, he pulls out his phone and takes a quick picture of Sue while his mouth still hangs agape. Afterwards, she’s sweated out so much liquid you’d think she’d ran a 5k. He slowly approaches her and the priest with genuine shock and concern asking if she’s okay. It’s hands down one of the strangest sequences I’ve ever seen on television, and likely one of the strangest things Nathan has seen.
One of the great things about Nathan for You is that it can reinvent itself episode to episode to keep you from truly knowing what to expect. The show can just be so many things at once with the overarching achievement of being hilarious and mindbending – it’s an incisive look at modern capitalism, an inside look into the craigslist culture, a social experiment of what people will do and say if they know either money or a tv appearance is coming their way, and a character study of obsession and loneliness. There’s just nothing else like it on television. And at the center of it all is a performance that dictates the flow, emotion and payoff of each scene with seemingly effortless control. It’s technically a reality show, but Nathan Fielder deserves a Best Actor Emmy for his performance as Nathan Fielder.