It Makes Sense That “The Rehearsal” Resonates With Autistic Viewers

For some viewers, the HBO series doesn’t feel like a peek into another universe, but a deeper look into one’s own.

Depending on whom you ask, HBO’s The Rehearsal, which aired its season finale on Friday, was about any number of different things: Male laziness and the extreme lengths men go to resist confrontation. The roles we play every day and the characters we represent in the lives of others. Social anxiety. Antisemitic microaggressions and Judaic/Christian conflict. Preparing oneself for parenthood. The abolishment of child actors. Or the possibility that Nathan Fielderdeserves both jail time and an Emmy.”

“I’m not good at meeting people for the first time,” Fielder, the writer, director, executive producer, and star of the docu-comedy series, says in the opening narration of The Rehearsal’s first episode. “I have been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that.”

Fielder’s television persona (discrete from his real-life self) is candid about his struggles to understand the world and his inability to communicate his feelings properly, qualities that inform part of the show’s premise: There are socially anxious people everywhere who want to be prepared for a heavy confrontation or a big life event.

The first episode of The Rehearsal focuses on Kor Skeete, a man who wants to come clean to a trivia teammate after lying years ago about having a master’s degree. To get there, Fielder’s crew members reconstruct on a soundstage the Brooklyn dive bar where his regular trivia night takes place. Here in this hermetically sealed environment, Kor and Fielder can rehearse the scene and plot every conceivable outcome of the upcoming interaction on a complex flowchart.

Fielder’s project is actually charting the universal experience of trying to connect with others.

But Fielder is a practiced magician, and the first episode is a misdirect. The Rehearsal doesn’t follow a formulaic episode-to-episode pattern, with each one focusing on a new client, like his Comedy Central show Nathan for You. In that series, a send-up of business reality TV shows, Fielder’s onscreen character was an unassuming nerd who cited his “really good grades” from a Canadian business school as his bona fides for helping struggling small businesses (albeit with patently bad ideas).

The central tension of The Rehearsal arises when Fielder arranges an environment for Angela, an Oregon woman, to rehearse parenthood. The experiment takes place over a matter of weeks, compressing the childhood of a theoretical son named Adam from infancy to teenagehood, with a rotation of child actors stepping in to fill his shoes. Searching for people to partake in the experiment (they might play, for instance, a courier or silent attendees at Adam’s birthday party), Fielder tries to find a co-parent for Angela before eventually assuming the role himself. The Rehearsal’s subjects have unique dilemmas, but Fielder’s project is actually charting the universal experience of trying to connect with others, understanding what it means to be a person, and feeling out of place in your own skin.

In the opening of Episode 1, Fielder narrates that humor is his “go-to instinct,” which counterbalances his otherwise alienating personality, “but every joke is a gamble.” As he enters Kor’s apartment and notices multiple doorways, he dryly remarks, “Oh, door city over here,” and then asks, “Shoes off, or…? Shirt off? Just kidding.” It makes for an introduction that is deeply awkward, though endearing. We later discover that even this stilted moment was the result of several rehearsals. Just as he plans for every possibility that could result from Kor’s forthcoming confrontation, Fielder had already rehearsed this scenario and decided that this was the optimal joke to use.

His odd behavior in the show has proven to be extremely memeable — he hovers a few feet away from his subjects, wearing what appears to be a BabyBjörn for his laptop, feeds actors lines to subconsciously teach Kor answers to a rigged trivia competition, asks a woman where her sweatshirt came from (with the ulterior motive of buying the same garment for a rehearsal), and responds to objectively bizarre comments with a blasé “oh, OK.

Fielder’s deconstructionist approach to navigating social situations and commandeering conversations has resonated with many audiences. There’s an underlying truth that viewers clearly identify with: Life is not a dress rehearsal, goes the adage, yet haven’t we all wished for a rewind button or the chance to really steel oneself for a situation?

“Humans are mysterious, both to each other and to ourselves,” Isaac Butler wrote in a Rehearsal recap for Slate. “Despite hundreds of years of inquiry, we still do not understand consciousness, the fundamental thing that makes us who we are. Our self-awareness outpaces our self-knowledge, and if we can’t even understand ourselves, how are we meant to understand others?”

For some neurodivergent viewers, including those with autism, The Rehearsal was also a profound example of onscreen representation.

For some neurodivergent viewers, including those with autism, The Rehearsal was also a profound example of onscreen representation. On numerous Reddit threads, including some on autism-specific subreddits, redditors said they responded to Nathan’s articulation of feeling lost socially, his difficulty communicating and expressing feelings of vulnerability with others, and his highly methodical attitude toward traversing life’s fraught moments.

In one Reddit thread, a poster says the series is “deeply reminiscent of” and reads like an allegory for the autistic experience. “In a way, the premise feels like it’s just taking my autistic/anxious tendencies to an absurdist, often surreal, extreme,” they wrote. “The way he agonizes over first impressions, coaches people through dialog trees ‘just in case’ they say something unexpected, the hyperanalytical approach he takes to studying a person’s body language, mannerisms, and psychology to more accurately practice how they might react - it all feels like an acid-trip version of my own social anxieties.”

“The whole first episode felt VERY relatable to me as someone with level 1 [autism spectrum disorder],” another redditor wrote. “About how hard it can be to pick up on social cues and how conversation should work. … He even makes flow charts for conversations which I have done and is something I think about all the time about how I wish everything had a flow chart for me to follow to know how to behave.”

The portrayal of Fielder suppressing his instincts in order to have a more frictionless, amiable interaction, disguising himself, and adopting a more confident, if superficial, disposition in deference to what’s considered socially acceptable is something intimately understood by autistic viewers, who recognize this as masking or camouflaging.

Autistic people often rely on a daily routine, can become distressed when it changes or is interrupted, and may not know how to act or what to say in some unanticipated social situations, psychologist Tamara May wrote in a piece about how The Rehearsalwill be familiar to anyone with autism” for the Conversation. “These characteristics can result in experiencing negative social interactions or being upset by unexpected events, resulting in anxiety about future similar situations. To try and prevent this anxiety and possible poor outcomes, people with autism can engage in meticulous planning for future situations.”

After Episode 1, an autistic friend of mine asked a group chat if we thought Fielder himself was autistic. Later, she described The Rehearsal to her therapist, who responded, “I can see why you’d like that; you like being able to know what’s going to happen in any given situation.”

Fielder himself has been navigating questions about the distinction between his TV self and real-life self, and how people perceive him, for years. In a Reddit AMA from 2014, he said, “I definitely play up certain parts of my personality and exaggerate vulnerabilities I have for the sake of comedy. I feel like the Nathan on the show has a much tougher time reading social cues and is way less self aware than the real me.”

A month before that AMA, the New York Times reported in a profile that, after seeing autistic people on a message board liken his comedic sensibility to those with the condition, he researched it further and “took a degree of inspiration from it.” In a Rolling Stone story published just before the final season of Nathan for You, reporter Andy Greene notes that Fielder rebuffs the implication that his character is on the spectrum. “There’s a lot of social disconnects that people experience all the time that have nothing to do with autism or anything,” Fielder said. When Greene asks whether Fielder has ever wondered if he had a developmental disorder, Fielder was “genuinely horrified,” and said, “Please don’t tell me this is the angle of your piece.”

“Usually when we’re done filming a season [of Nathan for You], I need to almost take three full months to get my personality back,” Fielder said on The A24 Podcast in October 2020. “Because it’s not so extreme. It’s just, I do feel my tendency in a real conversation is to make it OK. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable or something, but in the show I wouldn’t correct that. I would just let that failure hang. And from an outside viewer, it would be funny, the failure, but for me in the moment, I’m sitting with that discomfort.”

Overthinking social interactions and code-switching are obviously not traits exclusive to autistic communities. But like Fielder’s character, autistic people can approach a conversation with a slightly differently calibrated set of values and perceptions; they might pick up on certain things that neurotypical people generally miss, or they might not process a subtle tone shift or a nonverbal cue that can allude to a tacit meaning in someone’s words.

The Rehearsal takes the reins from Nathan for You, and the difference between Fielder’s character in each show is subtle but important. Where Nathan for You Fielder was more interested in pranks with elaborate setups, his Rehearsal character seems to be more tuned into the nuances and eccentricities of how we live our lives.

His reckoning with his own identity turns out to be especially poignant in Episode 4, titled “The Fielder Method.”

How do you ever really know someone? Is it possible to understand someone else?

He flies down to LA to open an acting studio, where he instructs his students to find people out in the world, covertly learn as much as possible about them, dress like them, mimic how they speak, and embody them the next day in class. Fielder peels back a layer and reenacts his own class to understand how he is doing as a teacher, becoming the role of Thomas, one of his students. Wearing a wig and jean jacket, Nathan-as-Thomas sits in attendance, feeling self-conscious about the presence of HBO cameras in the room. He tries to play it cool, but he loves being on camera. “Wait,” he stares down the barrel of a camera with Jim Halpert intensity, “what is this show?” He eventually takes Thomas’s house keys and goes into his apartment. We hear horror-movie synths crescendo as he enters his student’s bedroom and stares silently at a pile of stuffed animals in the corner. He uses Thomas’s nunchucks, eats his food, wears his clothes, and sleeps in his bed but still feels at a loss, unable to get into character and fully understand him.

“When Nathan started acting as Thomas, it hit that this is exactly how it feels to be autistic,” one redditor wrote. “The way he was confused by the fact that Thomas felt differently, how he tried so desperately to be the same but couldn't get it right. … Just how Nathan looked so out of place like an alien learning about human behavior. It occurred to me that it was unintentionally one of the most accurate and poignant representations of autism I've ever seen.”

Toward the episode’s end, Nathan narrates, “It’s easy to assume others think the worst of you, but when you assume what others think, maybe all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.”

One throughline of Fielder’s shows, Emma Healey wrote in Vulture after the season finale, has been his yearning to fully immerse himself into someone else’s life to alleviate his own anxieties and self-consciousness. “The conclusion he’s reached is that there’s something fundamentally wrong with his method,” Healey wrote. “Rehearsing his way through life prevents him from experiencing it, but it’s also what’s brought him to the heart of this emotional revelation.”

How To With John Wilson, another deeply funny and deeply sad docuseries produced by Fielder, often uses its real-life subjects to grasp bigger questions about life. An episode about wrapping one’s furniture in plastic gets at the nature of preservation and why we own things that we don’t want to fall apart. An episode about the unremarkable, ugly scaffolding around New York City lands on a thesis about staying in an unfulfilling relationship because it’s easier than moving on.

But The Rehearsal zooms out even further, and its subtext becomes more existential, more metaphysical: How do you ever really know someone? Is it possible to understand someone else? Can you truly grasp their motivations, desires, and fears? Can you ever feel prepared for a situation for which you’re woefully unequipped? Or is such a pursuit impossible? The Rehearsal, for some viewers, doesn’t feel like a peek into another universe, but a deeper look into one’s own. ●

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