Some shows never leave you. Towards the end of the premiere episode of there is a sneaky moment The sample – HBO’s raunchy new hidden camera comedy from serious Canadian Nathan Fielder – it’s as much a part of me now as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.
Fielder sits down with one of the show’s real-life participants, an easy-going 50-year-old black man named Kor Skeet, and admits to lying about something trivial – his scared performance is the comedy answer to mumblecore. But when the camera cuts to Skeet, the trivia enthusiast has been replaced with an actor who looks a lot like him. The actor delivers a brutal dressing, and Fielder takes it embarrassed.
In the following shot, skeet is skeet again, warm if a little quiet. The temporary transformation is never acknowledged. Maybe it has never happened?
It’s difficult to describe The sampleFielder’s ambitious follow-up to his 2013 word of mouth hit Nathan for you. It’s difficult to describe because I don’t want to spoil a single disturbing bit of it and there’s nothing out there that even remotely compares. As in Fielder’s Comedy Central docuseries, the cast consists mostly of non-actors. The comedian finds people on the precipice of making a difficult decision — from admitting an old secret to deciding to have children — and sets up a meticulously detailed, life-size “rehearsal room” so they can practice again and again.
If that doesn’t sound funny to you, that’s because, for the most part, it isn’t. It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable and excruciating. But the concept is friendly: people get better at things the more we do them, and Fielder wants to make people experts at their own puzzles. In a way The sample is an antidote to the hidden cam comedies you’ve seen before, the ones – inclusive Nathan for youin which Fielder made crazy schemes for small business owners – who deal in pranks and embarrassments.
Quiet, The sample, which always hovers on the knife edge of exploitation, is disturbing to look at. In the first episode, Fielder suggests helping Skeet confess to a Trivia teammate that he’s beautified his resume — a secret so exquisitely mundane it makes you chuckle at the thought of “rehearsing” it will. The master of controlled chaos even builds a replica of the bar where it’s all supposed to go under.
But Fielder has, as follows, rehearsing his own tricky situation: He’s never asked anyone to come on this crazy show. Before meeting Skeet, he sends a team of “engineers” from a bogus 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 in the role. In a clever iteration of the show’s build, Fielder reveals that he rehearsed every aspect, from the throaty banter as he walks in the door to the eventual admission that he’s already spied on the poor guy he’s trying to help . Yes, Fielder runs this social experiment, but he’s also its most avid subject.
Part of what’s uncomfortable about watching the show is that Fielder himself seems uncomfortable doing it.
As a comedian, Fielder loves taking a simple idea to the comic extreme. The “decision tree” he creates for Skeet’s big reveal night is so crammed with choices, arrows, and possible outcomes that it’s mostly a visual gimmick. Always uncomfortably lurking around the corner is the fact that Fielder isn’t an Oprah Winfrey or even a Dr. Phil is. Once a participant has achieved their goal, as Skeet more or less does, the question remains whether it all needs to be played back on TV, where even Skeet will see the fake flowchart.
But part of what watching is all about The sample As uncomfortable as it is how regularly you have to remind yourself that this isn’t altruism or even a genuine self-help show. The act of searching for a hapless TV character like Skeet is so alluring 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 double — is so destabilizing. When the credits rolled, I replayed the scene just to make sure it really happened. Fielder wants you to keep seeing the threads. He wants someone on TV to call him a “horrible, horrible person.” He knows he’s tricking people, and part of what’s awkward about watching the show is that Fielder himself seems awkward doing it.
Except he’s not really uncomfortable, is he? Fielder orchestrated The sample, filmed it and showed it on TV for the rest of us to laugh about. Perhaps the real experiment lies at the limits of self-confidence, which the comedian seems to possess in unbearable droves – or perhaps not at all. Because you can’t apologize in advance for the “horrible, horrible” thing you’re about to do, not in any meaningful sense. And just because the mad scientist is willing to join forces with his own monstrous creation doesn’t make it any easier to watch.