Some shows never leave you. There’s a twisted moment at the end of the premiere episode of The test – HBO’s slick new hidden camera comedy from Canadian serious Nathan Fielder – that’s a part of me now like anything else I’ve seen on TV.
Fielder sits down with one of the show’s real-life contestants, a 50-year-old black man named Kor Skeet, and confesses that he lied about something trivial — his coy delivery is comedy’s answer to mumblecore. But when the camera cuts to Skeet, the trivia enthusiast has been replaced by an actor who looks a lot like him. The actor delivers a brutal reprimand, and Fielder timidly accepts.
In the next scene, Skeet is Skeet again, warm, albeit a little quiet. Temporary recast is never recognized. Maybe it never happened?
It’s hard to describe The testFielder’s wickedly ambitious follow-up to his 2013 word-of-mouth hit Nathan for you. It’s tricky to describe because I don’t want to spoil a single disturbing piece of it, and because there’s nothing remotely like it. As in the Fielder’s Comedy Central docuseries, the cast is mostly non-actors. The comedian finds people on the precipice of a difficult choice – from confessing an old secret to deciding to have children – and sets up a meticulously detailed, life-size “rehearsal” space so they can practice over and over again.
If that doesn’t sound funny to you, it’s largely because it isn’t. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and excruciating. But the concept is kind: human beings improve things the more we do them, and Fielder wants to turn people into experts on their own conundrums. Somehow, The test is an antidote to the hidden camera comedies you’ve watched before, those – including Nathan for youwhich has seen Fielder launch insane schemes for small business owners – who trade in pranks and embarrassment.
Still, The test, always hovering on the unsettling razor’s edge of exploration, is a disturbing sight. In the first episode, Fielder proposes to help Skeet confess to a trivia teammate that he’s embellished his resume — a secret so exquisitely banal that just the thought of “rehearsing” will make you laugh. The master of controlled chaos even builds a replica of the bar where everything was supposed to go down.
But Fielder, it follows, has his own sticky situation to rehearse: he’s never asked anyone to come on this crazy show before. So, before meeting Skeet, he sends a team of “technicians” from a fake utility company to spy on Skeet’s house. He builds a replica of Skeet’s apartment and hires an actor to study videos of Skeet and improvise on the character. In a clever recursive of the show’s setup, Fielder reveals that he’s rehearsed every aspect, from the joke of clearing his throat as he walks through the door to the eventual confession that he’s already spied on the poor guy he wants to help. Yes, Fielder is running this social experiment, but he’s also the most anxious guy.
Part of what’s uncomfortable about watching the show is that Fielder himself looks uncomfortable doing it.
As a comedian, Fielder gets emotional when he takes a simple idea to the comic extreme. The “decision tree” he makes for the night of Skeet’s big reveal is so full of choices, arrows, and possible outcomes, it’s mostly a visual joke. Always creeping uncomfortably around the corner is the fact that Fielder is not Oprah Winfrey, or even a Dr. Phil. Once a participant achieves their goal, as Skeet more or less does, there’s still the matter of playing it all back on TV, where even Skeet will see the fake flowchart.
However, part of what makes observation The test so uncomfortable is how routinely you have to remind yourself that this is not altruism, or even a true self-help show. The act of rooting for a television character like Skeet is so seductive that the puppet strings connecting Skeet to Fielder’s control bar threaten to become invisible.
That’s why that final moment — the one where Fielder replaces Skeet with a hired doppelganger — is so destabilizing. When the credits rolled, I replayed the scene just to make sure it actually happened. Fielder wants you to keep seeing the ropes. He wants someone to call him a “horrible, horrible person” on TV. He knows he’s fooling people and part of what’s uncomfortable about watching the show is that Fielder himself seems uncomfortable doing it.
Except he’s not really uncomfortable about it, is he? orchestrated fielder The test, filmed it and put it on television for the rest of us to laugh about. Perhaps the real experiment lies in the limits of self-awareness, which the comedian seems to possess in unbearable mass – or perhaps not. Because you can’t apologize in advance for the “awful, awful” thing you’re about to do, not in any meaningful sense. And just because the mad scientist is willing to bond with his own monstrous creation doesn’t make it any easier to watch.