Hudson Greig, Contributor.
Before I start, I want to say that if you haven’t watched ‘Nathan for You’ (Comedy Central, 2013-present) yet, you should. Like, now. It’s a brilliant, deadpan comedy reality show in which Nathan Fielder plays an awkward, middling business school graduate, helping real small businesses with ‘off the wall schemes’ like having 40 maids clean a house in 8 minutes, and creating a sleeper cell within Uber. This will be spoilery, so go now. You won’t regret it I swear – I’ll even put a clip at the end.
In each season of ‘Nathan for You,’ there’s an episode in which the ‘Nathan’ character is developed, outside of the regular format. This is largely played for laughs, escaping from handcuffs as a robot threatens to pull down his pants in ‘Claw of Shame,’ but as the show progresses, these become noticeably more ambitious. While still light, season 3 muddies the water as he steals a stranger’s urine before they spend time together in order to secretly measure the man’s dopamine levels and scientifically prove that he is ‘fun.’ This is clearly a joke, and the shock value is reduced somewhat by the socially blind character Fielder built for himself, but it turns a little when Nathan confesses what he did. It’s awkward in a way it wouldn’t be in fiction – there’s no outburst or disgust, but a quintessentially human disquiet. We watch a real person, lonely enough to respond to a Reddit request to ‘hang out’ react to a bizarre betrayal of trust and boundaries, carried out for our entertainment, and for the first time we start to question the morality of what we’re watching. This is the sentiment Fielder tries to develop as the show goes on. Whilst there is an increase in complexity in this episode, the transition is still a comfortable one, and mostly goes under the radar. As viewers, we are accustomed to comedy that pushes boundaries farther than that. This is where season 4 is drastically different, as Fielder steps further outside of convention, blurring the line between character and actor. This process begins with ‘The Anecdote,’ in which he prepares for a chat show appearance by creating, and then enacting, the perfect anecdote. It’s funny, and wouldn’t really be worth thinking twice about despite the change of format, if not for its main role in setting up the last episode, and the subject of this piece, ‘Finding Frances.’
What immediately stands out about this episode is its length. Whilst ‘NFY’ episodes are generally about 20 minutes long, this is over an hour long, almost qualifying it as a documentary. The episode starts out fairly normally, but after 5 minutes or so it becomes clear that it’s more muted – Nathan’s typically overwrought awkwardness is toned down, and no business is introduced. Instead, a voice-over explains that a Bill Gates impersonator and throwaway joke from the first season has remained in contact with the team, regularly paying visits and even bringing gifts. He’s clearly lonely, and after he’s shown talking about a lost love from his youth, it comes as little surprise when Nathan decides that for this episode he wants to reconnect Bill and Frances. And the roller coaster begins.
With a calming, well-written voice-over it seems at first like an ‘NPR,’ ‘This American Life’ style piece; a feel-good character study with a familiar format – they look for clues, hit some troubles, and on the edge of giving up, find what they’re looking for, with some touching interviews in between. There’s even a drone shot of the two driving through an avenue of trees at the start of their journey that feels straight out of an indie film, and leaves us questioning whether it’s sincere or parody. And that question remains throughout. Tonally, it’s like a bell chart of affection and discomfort. It starts unclear as to whether the couple was real or a fantasy, as Bill gives vague and generic information about his past and relationship. You find yourself leaning towards the screen, desperately searching for some sign that he is telling the truth, and isn’t just some creepy old man. After a relative confirms his eccentricity Nathan even asks ‘were you a stalker?’and Bill dodges the question, surrounding him with an air of unease that never fully dissipates. His credibility returns slowly, and with the discovery of love letters, the story becomes cute again – though briefly, as they seem to imply he was having an affair. This disillusionment is only exacerbated as, in a few throwaway scenes late in the episode, Nathan silently listens as a man we’ve become invested in tunes into Fox News coverage of the presidential election and vocally advocates for Donald Trump. After a few false leads, the pair does finally find Frances, only to discover that she is married. Bill insists on still visiting and Nathan complies, but outside her house he does not leave the car. Instead, he calls without telling her he’s outside, and afterwards drives away.
Halfway through the episode, wanting an insight into his attitude towards women, Nathan hires an escort, Maci, to go on a date with Bill. He refuses, but Nathan meets her anyway with the intention of interviewing her about creepy old men. As they talk they seem to genuinely connect, beyond anything previously presented in the show – and in the ultimate meta moment, Nathan brings out a laptop and shows her an episode. It’s the first insight we get into Fielder’s attitude to his creation, the show we’re watching. He’s vulnerable and proud, and awkward in a human way, unlike his character.
They part, and the episode continues. And then he meets her again. Suddenly, there’s something unsettling about the encounter – without the pretext of an interview, it’s unavoidably genuine. It’s not integral to the plot, it’s out of nowhere, and we no longer know where Nathan ends and his creator begins. As he takes Maci on a walk along a bridge you can’t quite laugh, because it’s not quite fiction. It’s not a joke you and he are in on together anymore, you’d be laughing at him – a creator you like, whose work you’ve enjoyed for four seasons. When he takes her to a hotel and lays out strawberries you cringe and wait for a payoff, but there isn’t one. He lingers at the door when she leaves. If it’s real you want the camera guy, the sound technician, anyone to say something, though your only hope that it’s fake lies in their silence – you’re intensely aware of their presence, of the façade of television. Fielder doesn’t allow any such certainty, however, ending the episode by flying back to visit her. She asks for the cameras to be turned off, and he offers, to which she responds ‘isn’t that the whole point?’Nathan pauses for some time, during which we can almost see him wrestling with himself. The scene ends with a compromise; a drone shot, which shows the couple, then the film crew in its entirety, fade out of sight, and the audience is denied an answer. A line that so artfully encapsulates the overarching conflict of the episode could not have been written.
Fielder demonstrates an artful awareness and manipulation of his audience’s expectations – even in subverting them, we expect him to follow the accepted, unwritten code between creator and viewer, the clear boundaries that delineate entertainment from reality. When actors break the fourth wall or appear as themselves, there is a mutual understanding that this is the best version of themselves. But in forgoing artifice, Fielder makes himself vulnerable in a way no celebrity dabbing at tears or laughing on a sofa ever could. Fielder gives no absolutes, no resolution, and no clear distinction between fiction and reality. He brings to life a character that seemed so distant from reality and in doing so holds a mirror to the audience – who are we to laugh at another human being?
To go further, perhaps Fielder is addressing something beyond the boundaries of his show altogether and is questioning society’s romantic ideals themselves – Bill’s story is almost a cliché, and audience and participants alike see it heading in a straightforward direction; the reunion of long lost lovers. In everything he does, it’s clear Bill is following a sort of script for how he feels this sort of thing should happen. When he role plays the reunion he envisions her passionately abandoning her life for him. He sees himself confronting her husband, being the better man, getting the girl, running off into the sunset – and this ideal hasn’t emerged entirely from his imagination; it’s a trope of romantic reunion, peddled endlessly by unimaginative writers. His delusion extends to expecting her, a woman he hasn’t talked to in around 50 years, to immediately recognise his voice, becoming frustrated when she can’t ‘guess’ who he is after some time. It’s only in her driveway that he is struck by the imperfection and compromise of real love, laying aside the exactitude of Hollywood for messy reality. And then there’s Nathan. On one hand, we know his relationship can’t be real – he’s playing a character with an entire crew around him, and Maci’s a professional – they’re both just doing their job. Each encounter is preceded by his handing her an envelope containing $350, a reminder of the artifice underlying their time together. And yet there’s something in his eyes that seems real, and you find yourself searching hers for any sign that she’s with him for something more than business. And as you wrestle with the ethics of their involvement you realise their jobs aren’t so different – both play a role, blur reality, deceive those around them into believing they are what is ultimately a carefully constructed character. Is it worth believing a lie if it brings you joy?
Who is the figure of fun in Fielder’s comedy?
Is Fielder merely trying to find a conclusion for the lonely, socially awkward character he had built for himself?
Or is he a genuinely isolated man who found a connection, maintaining security through cameras?
Are he and Bill justified in hope?
Is his struggle genuine?
Or did Fielder orchestrate this blurring of the lines as a commentary on our consumption of personality based media?
Honestly, I don’t even know. And that’s why I liked it.
After all that overanalysing, here’s the link I promised: