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‘The Rehearsal’ and Its Murky Ethics

photograph of cameraman filming group on the street

Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is one of the best shows of the year, and recently it was renewed for a second season. But, like Fielder’s previous show, Nathan for You, The Rehearsal has inspired ethical debate. I don’t want to provide spoilers. But suffice to say, some of the real-life people on both shows are not portrayed very positively. Even some of those who are portrayed positively are nonetheless trying to deal with high-stakes situations while being jerked around and manipulated for entertainment by Fielder, who is, supposedly, trying to help them. And there is an arc involving a child actor late in The Rehearsal which raises a new series of ethical questions of its own.

I want it to be morally permissible to make these shows. They are hilarious, I think they have real artistic value and, sometimes, important social commentary, and anyway, I liked watching them. But I am not sure.

Let me survey some of the most obvious defenses of them and show why I am not convinced they succeed.

Justification 1: The people on the shows agree to be on them. They want to be there. Many things which would not otherwise be ethically permissible become so if you consent to them. For instance, if you agree to participate in a medical trial for an experimental drug, it may be permissible for us to administer the drug to you, but not otherwise. Being on these shows is like that.

Reply: What matters ethically is informed consent. If you agree to participate in the trial, but I, the experimenter, don’t tell you about the risks the experimental drug poses, then it is not ethical for me to administer the drug after all. It is fairly clear that many of the people on the shows do not understand what they’re getting into. First of all, they are often directly lied to about the premise of the shows, or about other aspects of what’s happening. (For instance, the premise of Nathan For You is that Fielder is offering intentionally bizarre and ridiculous business strategies to small business owners; it’s essential to the show that the owners believe Fielder is being sincere in his suggestions.) Further, even beyond this, participants may not quite understand all the potential costs of being made the butt of the joke in front of millions of people.

Justification 2: The shows are mutually beneficial. For instance, it seems safe to say that the business owners on Nathan For You were usually made better-off by their appearance on the show. Nathan’s schemes are hare-brained, but they are implemented only very briefly, and presumably steps are taken off-screen to help disgruntled customers figure out what’s going on after the fact. On the other hand, the business owners receive a huge amount of free publicity. People on The Rehearsal may not be in quite the same situation – they don’t have businesses to publicize. But all the same, they get their “15 minutes of fame” in addition to being paid, and in some cases Fielder really does seem to help them with their personal problems.

Reply: Well, some of the people on the shows are portrayed in ways that benefit them. But then, others are portrayed in ways that predictably don’t. So this doesn’t work for them, does it?

Justification 3: Let’s assume the editing on the show is fair: people aren’t portrayed in unflattering ways unless the characterization is basically accurate. It’s hard to know if that’s true just from watching, of course, but you, the author of this article, haven’t provided any evidence that this isn’t the case. If so, then people who are portrayed in unflattering ways basically deserve what they get. If, for instance, you make anti-Semitic comments while knowing you’re being recorded for a TV show – as some people on The Rehearsal do – then you’re responsible for the consequences. You can’t complain if Fielder puts what you freely did in the show.

Reply: Okay, we might need to take this on a case-by-case basis. The thing is that having your misbehavior exposed to millions of people is an awfully serious penalty: most of us have done things we’d really rather not have on TV. Some sorts of misbehavior may well merit this kind of public exposure, sure. But then, it’s not easy to tell, and people making TV shows may not be the ones we want to trust with that sort of judgment. Further, a lot of the unflattering portrayals are not really about moral issues. They’re instead about, say, gullibility (e.g., some business owner getting overly excited about Fielder’s silly plan). It seems much harder to say that this merits public ridicule.

Justification 4: The ends justify the means. The value of these shows is great enough to outweigh some unfair harms to some of the participants.

Reply: There are deep ethical questions about when the ends do or don’t justify the means which I can’t get into here. But just on an intuitive level, it seems far from clear that this is a situation where this is true, and I have difficulty imagining anyone employing this defense and being perfectly comfortable with it.

There is a lot more to say about all this. Maybe there are other justifications I haven’t discussed. And maybe some of my replies aren’t decisive. I hope so, actually: like I said, I want making the shows to be permissible. Further, I haven’t dealt with the questions around child actors, which raise many more issues of their own. And further still, I have focused on questions about the permissibility of making the shows. I haven’t talked about the ethics of consuming them. Someone could hold, for instance, that it was wrong to make the shows, but that, now that they are made, you might as well watch them. My main takeaway for the time being is just that the ethical questions around shows like this merit serious reflection, and that those of us who consume them should think critically about what we’re doing.

‘The Rehearsal’, Manipulation and Spontaneity

photograph of film set

The recent HBO series, The Rehearsal rests on a common concern – having to navigate situations without experience, where mistakes can significantly alter your life and the lives of those around you. Spearheaded by writer, director, producer, and performer, Nathan Fielder, the program offers people an opportunity to “rehearse” potentially high stakes situations by repeatedly running through a simulation with the actors. The episodes to air so far involve a bar trivia fanatic confessing to a friend that he previously lied about having a master’s degree, a woman practicing raising a child before deciding to become a mother, and a man hoping to convince his brother to let him access an inheritance left by their grandfather.

The show derives its humor, in part, from the lengths Fielder and his crew go to in the “rehearsals.” In the first episode, his team build a fully furnished, patroned and staffed, 1-to-1 replica of the bar in which the confession will take place, complete with live trivia. Fielder hires an actor to play the part of the confessor’s friend, who then arranges a meeting with this friend to better understand her personality, speech, and mannerisms in addition to gathering information about her from a blog she runs.

To simulate motherhood, the team hires many child actors to act as the adopted son. However, labor laws prevent a child actor from working more than four hours in a single day and limit the days a child can work each week. So, Fielder and his team must regularly replace the actor playing the child but do so covertly to maintain the illusion of raising a single child. Additionally, the team of actors changes each week, to a group of older actors, so the woman experiences raising a child at each stage of development.

Why go to such lengths, aside from the entertainment value? In the first episode of the series, Fielder notes that in our regular lives whether we achieve happy outcomes is a matter of chance. The idea behind taking painstaking efforts to make the “rehearsal” look and feel like reality is to leave the participants as prepared as possible in order to reduce the role fortune plays.

The appeal of performing these “rehearsals” seems to be motivated by a desire to control our interactions with others, in order to produce the best outcomes for all involved.

This is an incredibly common desire. Feeling like things are out of your control, especially those things which have a significant impact on the course of your life and the lives of those you care about, is anxiety inducing. The fact that things may go horribly wrong for us, despite our best efforts and intentions, creates a feeling of powerlessness. Being wrecked with anxiety and marred with feelings of powerlessness makes life difficult, to put it plainly.

But ought we follow through on this desire to gain control over our interactions with others? Richard Gibson helpfully analyzes the desire for control in the context of gene drives here. In doing so, Gibson presents an argument from Michael Sandel. Sandel argues that our desires for control, particularly in the realm of genes, involves a lack of humility. When we try to control as much as we can, this implies that we think it is appropriate for us to control these things. Specifically, Sandel claims that when we view the world in this way we lose sight of what he calls life’s giftedness. Our talents, skills, and abilities are given to us in the same way that a friend might give us a present. Much like one would think it inappropriate to alter a friend’s gift, perhaps trying to take total control of our lives is similarly inappropriate.

However, the real moral issues behind our desires for control become clear only when we consider that “rehearsing” involves other people.

For instance, the bar trivia fanatic is not just aiming to limit the fallout he experiences as a result from his confession. Instead, he is afraid of how his friend will react, and thus tries to control her reaction.

Of course, one might see no problem here. After all, we regularly tailor our interactions with others to avoid offending them while getting what we want. This is simply part of life.

Yet “rehearsed” interactions seem importantly different. To see why, consider the following: Daniel Susser, Beate Roessler, and Helen Nissebaum, in a discussion of manipulative practices on digital platforms, describe manipulation as “imposing a hidden or covert influence on another person’s decision-making.” Manipulative practices, they argue, involve trying to control a person in the same way that one might control a puppet, producing the desired behavior in the target by pulling on the target’s proverbial strings. Further, they argue that manipulative practices are more problematic the more targeted they are – manipulation that is tailor-made to match one person’s psychological profile seems more troubling than manipulation that trades on a widespread cognitive bias. Compare an ad for beer on TV the week before the Super Bowl that shows people excitedly watching a football game, to the same ad appearing in the social media feeds of sports fans after they make posts which suggest that they are feeling sad.

Although not perfectly analogous, there are important similarities between manipulation and “rehearsal.” We can see this with the trivia fanatic. In some cases, the “rehearsal” must be covert; if the fanatic’s friend knew he spent hours “rehearsing” their conversation, this would surely undermine his efforts and likely cause great offense.

A “rehearsal” may involve efforts to control how others respond to the conversation. One practices pulling different strings during the conversation to see how that changes the final outcome.

Finally, some “rehearsals” are targeted; the actor in the fanatic scenario puts in significant effort to mimic the friend as closely as possible. Surely, the actor cannot perfectly capture the psychological profile of the target. Nonetheless, imperfect execution does not seem wholly relevant. Thus, at least some “rehearsals” appear morally problematic for the same reason manipulation is worrisome.

Yet other “rehearsals” may lack these features. The rehearsal of parenthood, while hilarious due to its absurdity, does not need to be covert, involve an effort to guarantee particular outcomes, nor target a specific individual. One’s child will certainly have a different psychological profile than the child actor and, no matter how skilled the actors, surely they will not have indistinguishable performances. Thus, “rehearsals” that aim to try out a particular role, like parenthood, seem to have a different moral character than those that aim to make another person act in a desired way.

There is, however, one thing which may be universally problematic about “rehearsals.” During “rehearsals” of a conversation, Fielder stands by, taking notes and turning the conversation into an elaborate decision tree. This seems to turn the conversation into a sort of game – one practices it, determines cause and effect relationships between particular conversational choices and interlocutor responses, then pushes the proverbial reset button if the conversation takes an undesired turn.

As a result, it seems that the ultimate goal of a “rehearsal” is to eliminate spontaneity in the real conversation.

But part of what makes our experiences with others worthwhile is when the unexpected occurs. The price we pay for spontaneity is the anxiety of uncertainty. Our desires for control, if satisfied, may leave our interactions with others feeling impoverished and hollow.

I cannot say with perfect certainty what the goals of The Rehearsal are. The show offers a hilarious but often uncomfortable glimpse into what people are willing to do to gain a feeling of control. In doing so, it offers us the opportunity to reflect on what we should aim to take out of our interactions with others, and whether gaining control is worth what we might lose. If this was Fielder’s purpose with The Rehearsal, then it is a rousing success.

Media Sensationalism and the “Affaire Villemin”

The case of Gregory Villemin is well known in France, to the point that it is frequently referred to as the “Affaire Villemin.” Gregory was a four-year-old boy who was found dead in 1984, in the waters of the Vologne River in eastern France. There was intense media coverage of the case’s details, but ultimately, the murderers were never found.

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