How ‘Nathan for You’ Brilliantly Blows Up Reality TV
Popularized by The Office in the early 2000s, the “mockumentary” format has become the common TV style choice to tell loose, location-based, low-concept, character-driven comedies. However, aside from the interview cutaways and the cheeky Jim Halpert camera looks, shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation never truly embrace the idea that their presentation format is documentary or that their characters are anything but fictional.
Nathan For You, created, written, and directed by Nathan Fielder and now in its second season, is much more dedicated to being a true parody of the documentary/reality form both visually and thematically. Set up like a workplace improvement show in the vein of Bar Rescue or Kitchen Nightmares, the basic premise of Nathan For You follows a semi-qualified, semi-fictionalized Nathan Fielder as he pitches and sets forth massively elaborate and mostly unhelpful marketing ploys to help struggling businesses. Nobody in the show other than Fielder is in on the joke, so he has to carefully tow the line between his comedy and keeping these real businesses on the line so he can actually set his plans in motion. Fielder is so good at mimicking these business advice shows both in style and in content, which helps both the viewer and the subjects believe that he is in fact trying to be one.
Of course, if Nathan For You was only about reeling in and pranking suckers, the show wouldn’t resonate beyond the way shows like Punk’d or Jackass do. Instead, the perfectly executed prank and set up allow Fielder to dive into the deeper themes he is actually trying to explore with the show. He is hiding a much more complicated piece of comedy in a very-well executed but much more basic genre parody.
By setting up the structure of a reality television show, Fielder creates the expectation of his subjects that he will be making something they understand to fit in the genre. Thus, most of the “real” people on the show are acting in a heightened state, or how they think people act on a reality show. Once this pattern is developed, Fielder will break from the format in a number of ways. In the edit, Fielder chooses to linger on shots and moments longer than the set up holds, so he gives you moments where the subjects break from what they have comfortably planned and create a more authentic moments. The “seams” of real life interaction that documentary style TV edits around to create a more “seamless” reality are left in to show the nature of this type of television storytelling. Fielder will also ask unexpected questions, or harp on a small moment on interaction, often self-deprecating, to take the people he interacts with out of their expected mechanics and force them and himself into uncomfortable positions. He tends to go to less flattering close-ups of people and spaces to reveal what is unseen in reality TV.
Though it could be argued that many of Fielder’s setups are deeply mean-spirited, one should remember that all of these people have signed up to be on what they expect to be a reality show and have their own motives for doing that. Most of what Fielder does is turn that desire back around on his subjects and force them into more authentic emotional reactions than they might have expected to be lead towards, usually at the embarrassment of Fielder himself.
Fielder is also interested in exploring the nature of the desire for fame, and no episode of his show explores this better than Season 1’s “The Hunk.” This episode begins like all the others, though this time, Fielder himself is what is in need of fixing; he wants to get better at talking to women. After trying a few options within the shows narrated documentary structure, Fielder’s ambition grows. Within the show, he builds a Bachelor-esq reality show starring himself, complete with a house full of women for him to date and an enthusiastic host who all think they are in a real show called The Hunk. Again, Fielder builds a framework authentic enough to get contestants who want to be in a show like that to show up and then revels in showing the moments that are usually cut or not explored. It is in this episode for Fielder really reveals his long-con for the first time, going as far as speaking in the narration that the women he cast were exploiting the opportunity just as much as he was. When the show is at its best, as it is here, it is a deeply biting commentary on the exchange between the desire to be on television and the forfeiting of one’s likeness. What all of Fielder’s subjects have in common is that they all want to be on TV, but only within the pre-established structures of “reality.” Fielder revels in the discomfort of opening the curtain and breaking those structures.
This is why Nathan For You blows open the mockumentary form. He is breaking down its indicators both formally and thematically. His flat performance and still direction exposes the genre’s ingrained artificiality by showing the parts that would otherwise be edited out. The small conversations between moments. The beats, pauses, and silence that Fielder chooses to include and even highlight are the keys to showing the subtleties everyday life absent from reality TV.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.