Once again, I haven’t really watched a lot of TV this year. In fact, once you see the honourable mentions list down at the bottom, feel free to have a good chuckle that basically the only stuff I watched this year was reality TV. Sue me, I like the way TV moulds reality into compelling little nuggets of drama. Weirdly, that’s also exactly how we find our way to my favourite TV show of the year, which is not reality TV… Probably. Maybe. It’s hard to tell and I’m honestly not sure if I do want to make the distinction. If you haven’t heard of The Rehearsal, none of this makes any sense to you, so let me explain a little bit what the show is.
Nathan Fielder, former host/main character of the legendary Nathan for You, comes up with the idea of creating a space where you can rehearse for important life events. Maybe it’s a pivotal confession, perhaps it’s a family confrontation, or it could even be the raising of a child. That last one is what most of the show orbits around, as Nathan helps a woman practice the experience of raising a child. With this example, you can start to see where the strange, uncanny and often hilarious side of the show emerges. The fake children are played by child actors, but due to child labour laws the actors have to be regularly swapped out and for the evening the child must be played by a robot. The child is slowly aged up over the course of weeks as they are replaced by child actors of slightly older ages, all with the aim of “rehearsing” the process of raising a child. But who is the rehearsal for? Is it Angela, the woman playing the role of the mother? Or is this rehearsal all for Nathan’s sake, as he masterminds the plan from a room full of security monitors? Even though the answer feels obvious, it is never as clear as you’re expecting in the execution.
If you know Nathan Fielder from Nathan For You, he’ll feel familiar here. It’s a similar character to that show, in that he plays a fictionalised version of himself who is incredibly awkward and deadpan to all the real people he meets. Fielder also operates on largely the same principle, of just letting people talk at him. I genuinely think it’s a unique skill he has as a comedic personality, in that he never pulls out the truly ridiculous things his guests say. By Fielder remaining quiet, the others on screen fill the silence with some of the strangest confessions or statements you’ve ever heard. On Nathan for You, that included things like a shop owner talking about drinking his grandson’s pee when he gets scared. Here, it starts at a guy who sees conspiracies in all numbers, which help explain why he crashed his car while drunk driving, but slowly and suddenly escalates into quietly troubling places. As you might have worked out from that, it means that the comedy is often a little dryer and a little more underplayed, but it means the shocks are even greater.
In The Rehearsal, the character of Nathan becomes more part of the picture than ever. That’s not his intention from the start, but it’s a spiral, as things go absolutely bonkers. The only place you can really compare it to is suddenly not other sitcoms or comedy shows, but the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York. In that film, a man creates a play that is a reflection of his own life, inside of a large warehouse, where actors play him and the people in his life. The barriers slowly start to dissolve between the play and the outside life and things go real crazy real fast. If you’ve been paying attention to the images here, you might have worked out that this is exactly what Fielder is doing. He builds these real locations and populates them with actors to get the most accurate recreation of an event. The spiral comes when he panics about not being accurate enough and starts to integrate himself into the rehearsal, while also keeping old sets and actors around for his own personal gratification. It is weird from the word go and it doesn’t get any less weird.
As a show, I find The Rehearsal less consistently hilarious than Nathan For You. Admittedly, it’s not an easy bar to clear, comparing a show to one of the funniest shows ever made. What The Rehearsal does have though is its consistent WTF factor. The barriers of reality and fiction have always been blurry in Fielder’s work, but he takes it to whole new levels now, as well as actually addressing some of the ethical complications that his experiments can create. The actual answer to “where is reality and where is fiction?” is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the ambiguity of the line and the fact that you’re always thinking about it. Where Fielder plans to take a commissioned second season I have no clue. This first season feels like a complete thesis statement on artifice and reality, ending with an absolute bombshell moment. But, I will also be there the second it drops. For people like me, who don’t watch much TV anymore, The Rehearsal is powerfully compelling enough to lure me back to that world, for a taste of pure imagination.
The Traitors – Though it was a reality TV show, The Traitors was the kind of reality TV show so special that it rivalled anything scripted. As a huge fan of social deduction games, this was the concept taken to the top, in all its scheming brilliance. No show had my mouth on the floor as much as this one did this year and if you still haven’t got around to it, I genuinely think you’ll still be rewarded.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race – So, I got really into Drag Race this year. I’ve watched huge amounts of the show (and it’s probably a large reason why I’ve seen so few other shows this year), but the 2022 entries I’ve seen are US14, UK4, Canada vs The World and the legendary All Stars 7, the all winners season. If I’m forced to pick one season, it would be All Stars, a victory lap for the franchise if ever there was one.
Taskmaster (UK and NZ) – Taskmaster remains one of the single funniest shows on TV and the reason I’ve included the New Zealand version on this too is that the format is so rock solid that even when you don’t know any of the comedians, you can still laugh so hard that it hurts. Greg and Alex are probably TV’s strongest double act right now and we should treasure them.
The Boys S3 – The Boys has never been the best show on TV and it probably never will be. However, it is the most fun, the purest example of what I think TV could be and once was. Week after week, it was the show I wanted to talk to people about, the show that I got excited watching and the show that I am still excited to watch whenever its next season arrives.
The Suspect – I’m still not entirely sure if The Suspect is any good or not, but it was compelling! It was one of those ITV dramas where it’s moody and has twists and is a little trashy, but totally watchable from the first scene to the last. Like The Boys, it reminded me why I love TV as a medium.