1. BUT WHAT IS IT?
I think Nathan For You is as good as The Wire.
I mean that. We live in a world full of hyperbole, but it’s hard to imagine someone doing this show with any better possible execution. So I don’t know what other yardstick we could go by. Sure, most folks agree it’s scathingly funny. Just as many agree that Nathan Fielder is some kind of left-field, deadpan comedy savant. But the thing that fascinates me has to do with the deeper purpose of the show itself, which not only has far more complex layers of construction than people give credit for, but whose very “core identity” is not likely what we assume. This subject is practically an obsession among my friends, just I can’t tell you how many filmmakers and ‘creative types” are similarly obsessed with the show in general. There is a damn reason for this. And yet so many people gloss over the the simplest question at the heart of Nathan For You, which happens to be the one I find the most fascinating:
“What is it?”
Seriously, what is this show? On paper, the premise is simple: “Nathan tries to help struggling businesses boost their sales.” Which makes room for completely gonzo business ideas, wherein Nathan’s straight-faced, unassuming Canadian demeanor slowly eggs people into the ludicrous, just as his deadpan reactions always highlight the joke of the given moment. But let’s not be coy, this show’s M.O. is basically just ballsy manipulation, one that gets people to cooperate with the silliest and most absurd possible life choices. But Nathan throws himself into the most socially anxious situations imaginable, ones that are beyond mere human’s ordinary capabilities. But to be fair, it’s also a far cry from the edge lord dare-based approach of Sasha Baron Cohen, opting instead to ride an incredibly fine line of morality. But still, is it a prank show? Is it man on the street comedy? Is it really just a provoking documentary? How much of this show is constructed, anyway? But the driving questions even go beyond that. Like how is the show is somehow mostly mean, but also doesn’t actually feel like it? Is it because Nathan is very rarely mean himself? Is it because the “character” of Nathan has become finely honed into a perfect sad-sack loser along for the ride, similarly looking for friendship and kinship in a world full of lost souls? Because within that, we create this weird love and bond for the weirdo characters that populate the show. And so every episode, I feel like we watch Nathan and someone else fall down the rabbit hole of bad idea after bad idea, always revealing a new “therefore, therefore, therefore,” but really, he’s revealing something else entirely…
And it all reaches a spectacular apex and the fourth season finale, “Finding Frances.”
The episode centers around a man named Bill Heath, who first appeared on the show a few seasons ago as a Bill Gates “impersonator”and he made quite the impression on Nathan. Well, he made quite the impression on everyone, really. Not only was he a uniquely terrible Gates impersonator, he was just this weird, goofy dude that you couldn’t even begin to describe. But as the opening of the finale tells us, he participated in a chaotic recording of his episode’s audio commentary, during which he couldn’t stop mentioning a lost love. And then, he kept coming by the production office, leaving gifts, hanging out, and participating in his favorite topics of conversation: the Arkansas Razorbacks and, of course, his lost love Frances. After seeming months of this, Nathan decided to use the show’s resources to try and help him do just that. As Nathan will hilariously deadpan later in the episode, “after all, no one wants to be old and filled with regret.” But as you watch the opening you can’t help but think…
Wait, this Bill guy for real?
Oh, he’s for real. I know this because my friend Spence once hired him as a Bill Gates impersonator for my friend Andrew’s Birthday party a few years ago (again, this show has superfans and then some). Andrew recalls, “he came and sat with me. He had downloaded Bill Gates wikipedia page and then read facts to me about Bill Gates.” Spence: “Seriously, he printed out a binder’s worth of material on the xbox kinect, but it was about last year’s model.” Andrew: “But he figured out halfway through I wasn’t a Bill Gates fan.” Spence: “I think thats when he decided to stay longer. Cause he realized HE had fans.” He apparently loved taking pictures with everyone and “definitely talked about the razorbacks a lot… And trump.” And then Andrew let it fly: “I swear he mentioned Frances at some point.”
Years later, I’m watching this man’s life all unfold in in the finale and you can see the way plays to Nathan’s documentarian sensibility. It’s the old adage “you just follow the story,” which really means you just follow the people. But what unfolds goes beyond the mere operatics of the insane schemes that define the show (though there are certainly plenty of those). It instead reveals entire layers of “Bill” himself. You get to see so much of this odd duck is so lacking in the “ball feel” of understanding how and what to say to people. He’s an actor, but you get the sense he’s learned all the wrong lines. Still, underneath the layers of armor and oddity, you connect so much to his hidden emotion, his seemingly deep pains of regret that he keeps tucked away from the audience. As their “boys road trip” presses on, Nathan keeps trying to lean into it. But all the mechanics of the episode’s first genuine heist pay off with fireworks. A simple shot in the car of him seeing her yearbook as his eyes water and he can barely speak… It’s real. The nugget, the yearning at the heart of this story. It’s all so real… But so is all of it.
And that’s how you realize what makes this show so good.
It’s not the mere fact that there are “real” moments on Nathan For You. No, the most important factor is the base-line reality of the show itself. It never breaks. Just as Nathan never breaks. Because it understands that for an audience to truly believe a story, you have to believe every part of it. No, I’m not saying the audience has to be %100 duped or something like that. After all, we know Nathan is a guy who is largely orchestrating events as a “character.” But the point is that the show acts has to act as if it’s all real anyway. I am telling you, this is actually critical to all storytelling. Because if you have a moment where you let the air out? Where you let the audience see the seams? Well, then you broke the audience’s suspension of disbelief. I mean, there a reason most reality breaking fuck-it moments come at the end of a story and not the middle. But within these kinds of “comic realities,” there’s all sorts of mini ways to mess up “reality” without even thinking about it.
Because honestly, I feel like see a lot of other comedy shows mess this up all the time, particularly ones coming from a sketch sensibility. We’ll get one scene where a character is looking his nose down in at people and then a few scenes later he’s wanting someone’s approval, and it’s not based on any psychology of the character. There’s no real motivation or consistency. You see they were just going for the better conflict or better joke and not thinking about it. Just as you’ll see act of terrifying consequences and then the show never referencing them again. There’s no base-line reality, so what you are really seeing is a lack of impact, which is a lack of narrative meaning. But again, whatever is on screen, all of it, all of it has to be real.
After all, there’s a reason Lorne Michaels hates it when characters break on SNL, just as he knows the dangers of why people love it so much when they do. He knows that you need a baseline for the show to work, but the live element mixed with the “tradition” of breaking is often so funny precisely because it creates a different level of audience understanding when it happens. It feels “fun” and a way to get behind the scenes of something whose reality probably wasn’t all that interesting or “believed” to begin with. But again, Lorne knows you can’t milk it. Because what is SNL if they break every single sketch? There is, of course, a flip-side to this where if you show the seams, we have to see ALL the seams. For instance, one of my favorite moments of the recent My Brother My Brother and Me show on Seeso (RIP) was the behind the scenes moments when these three goofy, inept brothers were trying to make simple adult phone calls to try and book famous talent and couldn’t do it without getting scared and laughing. But that breaking? That’s actually our baseline. It’s reversed, and the biggest problems actually come when they try to put a sheen on a show that’s made instead of them trying to make the show.
And so it’s important to see the critical difference in the moment of Nathan For You. It’s all the sheen. Even the one moment where Nathan “breaks” in the finale when Bill makes a sexually crude comment and Nathan has to squeak out a “Jesus, Bill!” reaction to it. But just because it’s not his usual deadpan egging-on, doesn’t mean it’s out of character. Because at this point, we’ve established enough of their reality of their relationship for that reaction to make sense. We always have the stakes and we know what’s real.
… Sort of.
This whole subject becomes doubly fascinating with the episode’s B-plot of the Maci, the escort that Nathan hires to do a test date with Bill. But when Bill doesn’t want to be with an escort (and makes the aforementioned sexual comment), Nathan ends up spending time with her instead to “get in the mind of a older man.” But the meeting is, of course, just about the fact that Nathan’s character is desperately lonely. But within that is the reality being presented within the episode. He evokes the mantra, “prioritize your career you become desperate for any human connection.” And so begins a cycle of Nathan paying Maci for dates as he keeps putting his fragile, boy-like persona on display.
But the most fascinating part of this is the way he lets her into the larger reality of the show itself. He even shows her episodes and she’s able to directly call out the larger identity of the show. She laughs but calls him out for mean, even saying “you lied to every last one of them.” Her basic sense of decency and being able to the see the fabric of the show’s ugly construction is fascinating, but she also keeps being kind to Nathan (who, after all, is paying her). From there the questions keep bleeding together, what does she really understand about the cameras and the dates that are happening? Because she she’s there and being genuine throughout the whole thing, but she’s also constantly pointing out how this is weird and he’s weird for doing it.
The questions reach a fever pitch when she prompts him to go to a place that’s a little more quiet and they end up kissing on the hotel bed. Holy shit is this happening? I mean, this show’s never gone that far and yet they both seem so genuine. It’s so strange that at the exact point I tweeted that I was writing about the show someone asked, “@jmittell But does Hulk think Maci is real or not?” I feel like we end up asking these kinds of questions with the show constantly: How much of the show is orchestrated? How much do the people on it know and understand? How does this all even happen?
5. THE DISSOLVE
But at the heart of the quest was Bill, a man with a lonely heart. So powerful this motivation, that it guides us through a movie-length search that is the finale. But the search for Frances was spiraling out until a much needed break in the case. One that come together with a good bit of detection work. Seems Bill and Nathan were able to piece together her new married name and town of residence from her parent’s obituary. They then go to the library and lo and behold, she’s on Facebook. The moment he sees her, staring back from the scene, he can’t believe it. It’s a weirdly euphoric moment to see that Frances is so real. But of course, Bill then sees she’s married and it suddenly it turns. For all the ways he deferred and said he didn’t know what he wanted out of this, it becomes clear: he’s angry. He’s clearly pinned so much of his hopes on this. He begins his weird obsession with her wording about how she would take “her love to the grave” and he’s practically acting as if it was a binding contract. He rails against her “overweight” new husband… Yeah, it gets fucking weird and possessive, the dark side of a life time’s worth of regret.
Even in character, Nathan seems hesitant to keep endorsing this. But he wants to help him get over this initial disappointment, so he goes back to his amazing use of role-playing, which gets at the old-adage of “the play’s the thing wherein i’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Yup, it’s right out of the playbook of famed documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer and The Act of Killing. Nathan hires an actress to play Frances, but Bill is laying it on thick and (also laying his attraction onto the actress too thick and keeps talking about her teeth!?). He’s using the scenario for all his darkest and most unhinged impulses of what to say and not to say to the woman he’s thought about for fifty years. So Nathan switches it up and has him play Frances’s role, and suddenly it all changes dramatically. You hear all this anger and him finally admitting “you cheated!” and you realize it’s every single thing he’s been yelling at himself for years. Yup, the role reversal actually works. And so Bill the actor finally calms down, goes back to his old role, and seems to genuinely understand that he has to be accepting of both where she is in life, her new situation, and also what he did to her all those years ago.
From there, we finally go to Michigan, where there are so many incredible moments of build-up. From the “it’s going to be okay” hug with his niece, to the hilarious, haunting aside where he, a Trump fan, calls his win in the election. To even Nathan’s genuine observation of their nervous, silent car ride to Frances’s house where he says “the more you get to know somebody, the less you feel the need to fill the silence with talk.” Then it all comes down to the final moment, and they laugh, fully understanding the arc of what transpired… But Bill can’t go in. He keeps saying he wants the cameras to come with him to the front door. Nathan points out it’s a personal moment, he’s genuinely invested, but it crosses a line. But Bill says he wants “all the PR,” which makes it so damn clear: he thinks of the camera as his armor, his good spin, his legitimacy. It’s such a failure to see what everything really is… and so… Bill has to call first.
Bill calls from outside her house. Of course, his “ball-feel” all wrong. He won’t say who he is and keeps with “I want you to guess!” But really he’s asking to be loved and remembered. You see it. You see the anguish of what he can’t say, the horror of facing a lifetime of regret that can go up in smoke. Meanwhile, Nathan is squirming in a completely different kind of anguish as it goes on forever and he keeps telling him to say who he is… Finally, Bill says says who he is, and it all comes out as the heartbreaking moment of what is unsaid. There’s Frances’ pain, clearly confronted by the ghost of a man who hurt her so so long ago. But Bill keeps going, saying every wrong thing in the wrong way, putting a big “I’m fine!” smile over everything. And it’s just so clear he wants to be wanted. Frances talks about her lovely life and her nine grandchildren. And then it slowly peters out into a goodbye…
Nathan asks him, “was it hard?” but Bill is so wrapped in denial, thinking the nervousness was clearly on Nathan’s part. Bill’s so clearly unravelled by all of it, but he only knows how to put the actor sheen on it. Still, he says the most inadvertently poetic thing I’ve ever heard, “she sounded like it was just memories.” Which was to her. But to him, it was every day. It was all that consumed him. But from all we’ve seen, we know it wouldn’t have been right anyway. We know who Bill is and he’s really not even the best guy. We know he has this displacing inability to be a complete, loving person. Mostly because he thinks love is regretting a single choice. But if he married her, he likely would not have fixed his life or behavior, most likely. No, regret is about a lifetime of choices that bring you to the place where you got the thing you wanted, but not the thing you needed. But there’s nothing left for Bill to do. He go the proof he needed that she wasn’t interested in rekindling, and so he suffers the ongoing outrageous pain of the coward.
“You want to go home?” Nathan asks.
With that, they leave. And in the come down we get the most spectacularly telling moments. Bill trying to kill a bee in the hotel room that plays out just like Breaking Bad‘s Fly episode. It’s just more displacement. As is his gesture of swinging by the production office again and gifting Nathan a serving tray from Neiman Marcus. But of course, he has an ulterior motive. And that’s when he asks for it… the phone number of June, the actress who played Frances in their scene. I practically feel over laughing. It’s her literal stand in. A part he knows she can play, a role. And another clear mark of not very good person, who probably means better than he can conjure. But at least she’s not a memory. And the call-back moment where she’s able to guess “is this bill?” could not be more amazing. Their final date is weird, uncanny, just another put on. But we already know how it really is and what it will really be, because we know who Bill really is. But in the end, they just want people to play roles and Nathan is no different.
So of course it comes back to his own final date with Maci at the episode’s finale. But she’s sitting there, happy to take the money, finding him nice, but still scoffing at the whole thing. It is there she says most scathingly brilliant thing I’ve ever heard someone say about the show…
Maci: “Do you want to turn the camera’s off? Or does that defeat the purpose?”
Nathan: “Why? What’s the purpose?”
The moment is everything. She knows that she’s playing some role on a show. She knows that she doesn’t know if Nathan is genuine or if this is some gag. But her question is genuine, and so perfectly gets at the layers of everything I find so compelling and brilliant about this show. What is real? It’s not the actual question. It’s the one I asked at the beginning: “what’s the purpose?” And the point of the final scene is that “Nathan” can’t actually deal with life when he cameras are off. Just as Bill can’t go up to a front door without the armor. They’re the same in that way. So instead of turning them off, they’re just going to get this really sick drone shot instead. There could not be a more perfect “comedic reality” moment for the show to end on. And it absolutely reminded of something Patton Oswalt said when I asked him a question: “Beyond the push-pull of creator vs. critic, there is a further zenith for every comedian, and it’s often achieved by accident: Unveil an actuality.”
So what is the actuality of Nathan For You?
It’s a prank show where the prank dissolves and life itself becomes the joke. For when you make the absurd possible, people let out their absurdity in turn. They’ll even feel free to start talking about how they drink their grandson’s pee. But that absurdity is where our naked id and woozy spirit most resides. It’s where we open up and become our most whole aching selves, often telling our story not in our expressions of want, but in what we most deflect. It’s true of Bill, just as it is for Ghost Realtors and Nathan’s “character.” So under the veneer of the show’s artifice, under the inherent meanness of the act itself (that is the act of filming all this), there is still something weirdly empathetic about a show that will take its time and spend weeks trying to help a lonely man find a love from his past. Should they be? Are they using him? I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. But that’s because it’s a show that will capitalize on your delusion, but then maybe let you transcend past it. Or maybe fall. But it gives you that choice. It all really depends if we’re the kind of person who will go up to the house or call from outside. So whatever the show “is,” the actuality is all there, unveiling that which only rests in the desperate pain of our most absurd selves.
I can think of nothing more human.