Ssome shows never leave you. There’s a sly moment towards the end of the premiere episode of The exercise — HBO’s slick new experimental comedy from earnest Canadian Nathan Fielder — it’s as much a part of me now as anything else I’ve ever seen on TV.
Fielder sits down with one of the show’s real-life contestants, a lithe 50-year-old black man named Kor Skeet, and admits to lying about something trivial—his timid 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 But when the camera cuts to Skeet, the trivia enthusiast has been replaced by an actor who looks a lot like him.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 gives a brutal takedown, and Fielder takes that sheep.
In the following image, Skeet Skeet is again, hot if a little quiet. The temporary recast has never been confirmed. Maybe it never happened?
It is difficult to describe The exerciseFielder’s wildly ambitious follow-up to his 2013 Word of Mouth Nathan for you. It’s hard to describe because I don’t want to spoil a single disturbing bit of it and because there’s nothing else out there quite like it. As on Fielder’s Comedy Central docuseries, the cast consists mostly of non-actors. The comedian finds people on the brink of a difficult choice—from confessing an old secret to deciding to have a child—and sets up a meticulously detailed, life-size “rehearsal room” for them to practice, over and over.
If this doesn’t sound funny to you, that’s because it mostly isn’t. It is difficult, uncomfortable and unbearable. But the concept is kind: 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 exercise is an antidote to the hidden-camera comedies you’ve seen before, those — included Nathan for youwhich saw Fielder come up with crazy schemes for small business owners – dealing in pranks and embarrassment.
still, The exercise, always hovering on the uneasy knife edge of exploitative, is outrageous viewing. In episode one, Fielder suggests helping Skeet admit to a trivia teammate that he’s embellished his resume—a secret so exquisitely mundane that just the thought of “practicing” it makes you giggle. The master of controlled chaos even builds a replica of the bar where everything is supposed to go down.
But Fielder, it follows, has his own predicament to practice: he’s never asked anyone to come on this crazy show before. So before meeting Skeet, he sends in 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 in character. In a clever rehash of the show’s set-up, Fielder reveals that he’s practiced every aspect, from the throat-clearing banter as he walks in 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 eager subject.
As a comedian, Fielder is thrilled to take a simple idea to its comedic extreme. The “decision tree” he makes for the night of Skeet’s big reveal is so overflowing with choices, arrows, and possible outcomes that it’s mostly a visual gag. Always creeping around the corner is the fact that Fielder is no Oprah Winfrey, or even a Dr Phil. Once a contestant has achieved their goal, as Skeet more or less does, there’s still the matter of running it all back on TV, where even Skeet will see the creepy flow chart.
Still, part of what makes it watchable The exercise so uncomfortable is how routinely you need to remind yourself that this isn’t altruism, or even a genuine self-help show. The act of rooting for a TV character like Skeet is so seductive that the puppet strings connecting Skeet to Fielder’s control rod threaten to become invisible.
That’s why the 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 watching the strings. He wants someone to call him a “terrible, terrible 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 making it.
Except he’s not terribly uncomfortable with it, is he? Fielder orchestrated The exercise, filmed it and put it on TV for the rest of us to laugh at. Perhaps the real experiment lies at the limits of self-awareness, which the comedian seems to have in excruciating amounts – or perhaps none at all. Because you can’t apologize in advance for the “terrible, terrible” thing you’re about to do, not in any meaningful sense. And just because the mad scientist is willing to plug into his own monstrous creation doesn’t make it any easier to watch.