The Heart and Humanity That Makes ‘Nathan for You’ So Good

nathanforyouI was late discovering the brilliance of Nathan For You because I was concerned it was a mean show, in the way that prank shows are often mean: one person (the host) creates a fake reality, and convinces other people that it’s real, and then it’s revealed that they’re wrong, which is also the joke. Nathan For You is not that show.

Every episode of Nathan follows the same formula: Nathan, who “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades,” identifies a small business — the kind the American dream is built on — and formulates a scheme to help them increase profits. The scheme, without fail, is both perfectly logical and fundamentally flawed. They are always unscalable, frequently borderline illegal, and often depend on one-on-one interactions with Nathan himself. Because of these and other less-anticipated flaws, Nathan has to amend the schemes to work around an endless stream of deal-breaking problems; usually, this requires hiring other people: security guards, lawyers, private investigators, an alligator. Nathan poses so many solutions to so many contingencies that the end result is a business plan courtesy of Rube Goldberg. Sometimes, the plans work as intended (to my surprise, and seemingly also to Nathan’s, vicious, racist caricatures do sell better); more often, they don’t (no one wants to give birth in a cab on purpose). Occasionally, Nathan encounters an obstacle that’s as insurmountable as it is mundane: the “Dumb Starbucks” plan — create a Starbucks doppleganger called Dumb Starbucks, use parody law to defend its existence, and profit — ended not because of trademark infringement, but because you can’t serve food without a license.

Nathan could have been simply a parody of capitalism, a knowing takedown of anything-for-a-buck, technically-legal-but-definitely-ill-advised business schemes, but Fielder has bigger ambitions. He’s called the show a ”social experiment,” and it plays like an inverse Real World, where people get real but also stay, in general, staggeringly polite. With each business plan, he sets up a situation that is going to push the bounds of appropriate social norms in a profoundly uncomfortable way, and then lets it play out, usually very uncomfortably. But not unkindly: on Nathan, the subjects aren’t the punchline, and it usually seems like even Nathan isn’t sure what exactly the punchline is until we get there. We’re all in it together.

The best segments are the ones that do get weird in serendipitous ways, either because the plan itself takes off (à la “Dumb Starbucks”), or because the supreme personal weirdness of the participants eclipses the plan all together. Sometimes, as with season one’s gas station episode — Nathan convinces a gas station owner to offer gas for $1.75 per gallon with rebate, but the catch is that you have to deposit the rebate in a box on top of a far-away mountain after answering a number of riddles — you get both. The scheme turns into a marathon overnight camping trip, and while the easy joke is that jeez people will do anything to save $13 bucks (and they will!), it’s also an incredible display of humanity: the rebate campers, all of them lonely, all of them in the arguably depressing position of being able to spend an entire day and night on a mountain with strangers in pursuit of a gas rebate, become actual friends. It would be amazing even if the episode didn’t end with the gas station owner cheerfully explaining the medicinal powers of drinking young children’s pee. And yet it does.

Three episodes in, season three is great for exactly the same reasons the first two seasons were great, only more so: the show has found so many variations on the core experiment, and all of those variations manage to yield something surprising and delightful. The season kicks off with what may be the most convoluted and psychologically nuanced plot to date: to rescue a flailing mom and pop electronics store by using Best Buy’s sinister price match policy against them. This fails, which gives way to an attempted lawsuit, which necessitates a fraudulent reality dating project, which also fails, but plants the seeds of a potential romance between the lonely and endearing electronic store owner and a very nice-seeming lady from the internet. Also, there’s an alligator.

But while Nathan is great when, as in the premiere, it is entirely Nathan-driven, it is even better when Nathan stumbles upon someone who is fascinating and bizarre enough to turn him into the most sensible person on screen. And in the third episode, we get one. “The Movement,” which focuses entirely on a scheme that will allow City of Angels Moving Company to get free labor from people who think they’re participating in a new workout (The Movement), isn’t Nathan’s best-ever premise. It’s not even the best of the season so far. But it is the one that introduces us to Jack Garbarino, a cheerful bodybuilder who takes on the role of The Movement’s spokesperson — a role based entirely upon spinning a nonsensical web of lies — with a natural ease that is borderline sociopathic. He is less overtly funny than genuinely awe-inspiring: it is incredible that this person actually exists, and at least as incredible that Nathan then found him. Or maybe it isn’t; uncovering what is interesting about people and then giving them the space to be interesting is the particular genius of the show. (Nathan is never better than when he’s playing opposite a hyper-masculine foil, and Garbarino is testosterone embodied.)

And yet he, like all of Nathan’s heroes, seems to mean well. He wants to do the right thing, in his own bizarre way. One surprising conclusion of the “experiment”: people, as a group, are mostly pretty great. Our apparent willingness to politely go along with things, overlooking obvious problems, has the potential to be catastrophic — in an interview with the A.V. Club’s John Teti and his mother, Fielder said he’d been inspired in part by the mortgage crisis, which, well, we know how that turned out — but it’s also perversely heartening. Niceness isn’t the joke, of course. But it’s what makes the joke possible.

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