“Nathan For You” is built on an undercurrent of mundane desperation: most of us will go along with anything if it means 10 minutes of face-time on TV. We’ll serve (artificial!) poo flavored yogurt at our FroYo shop; court lawsuits for the publicity; deceive the public with bogus animal videos; and camp with unknown men in the wilderness. Shove a camera in someone’s face and they are no longer wary of strangers. They’ll go on dates, spill their hearts, betray secrets. It’s as riveting and hilarious as it is uncomfortable. It might be the best half-hour on television this summer.
“Nathan For You,” whose second season began July 1, is a business advice reality show. Nathan Fielder, a comedian who graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree in commerce, advises small businesses on how to grow. It’s like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Bar Rescue” except Fielder doesn’t have experience and the advice isn’t good. It’s also not terrible advice (not typically, anyway). The advice has to land in the sweet spot of “bad enough to entertain the folks at home; good enough to get the business to try for a day.” It’s not a parody of business advice shows, but it frequently becomes a parody of other reality genres. The show is more confusing to describe than it is to watch.
All reality shows involve the viewer — you can’t watch without wondering whether you think you can dance or if you have talent or if you are the project runway. But “Nathan For You” transcends the genre. It makes the viewer question the morality of viewing at all. There’s a limit to how many episodes you can watch straight, laughing innocently at Nathan’s advice and at the people who take it. After that, even the callous viewer wonders: Who are these people? If I had a small business, would I be one of them? Would I go on the show, say, to promote my (hypothetical) appetizing store? All publicity is good publicity, no? How could I, struggling dealer of smoked fish that I am, turn down the exposure? Would I take the bad advice, become the neighborhood toilet, or anger my customers with misleading promotions, like the pizza place he tells to offer an eight minute delivery guarantee? After 8 minutes, the customer gets a free pizza. The catch: the free pizza is only 1” big and the customer still needs to pay for their original order.
Then I started to wonder, would I still say “yes” to the show if I knew what it was, if I knew that “Nathan for You” was a comedy?
The show’s answer is, you would. Towards the end of Season 1, Nathan made himself the client. Talking to women is difficult for him, so he counsels “immersion therapy.” He decides to date 10 women at once, but none of the women he approaches on the street — not the ones to whom he offers a free smoothie, not the ones he showers with a cute puppy — agree. So he and his producers create a fake reality show called, “The Hunk,” starring Nathan in the title role. Over the next three months, they cast and prepare. “The Hunk” is a perfect parody of “The Bachelor,” from the handsome host to the graceful mansion. One by one women parade out of a limousine and talk with Nathan at the threshold. He does a good job of having awkward conversations with them, either because he’s awkward with everyone, or because he’s terrible with women, or because this is a TV show and he’s performing a part. Then there’s a party in the living room and champagne pops and women cheer and Nathan has alone time with some of them outside under the stars or inside on a blanket by a fireplace.
Several times Nathan’s voiceover remarks that the women are getting exactly what they want from “The Hunk”: they get to be on TV. In a testimonial, one of the women tells us that she is a singer and her new album is coming out in the fall. Another tells Nathan that she loves him after he implies that “liking” him is not enough to avoid being cut from the competition. Staying on TV is more important than honesty.
The skit is a criticism of “The Bachelor/ette” and a form of self-reflection. It sidesteps the question of whether or not the advice he gives businesses is moral by changing the terms. This is an exchange. People want to be on TV. Nathan gives them their chance.
A line from Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer” kept popping into my head while watching the show. A mentor tells the young hero, “You’re not so nice in your fiction…You’re a different person.” The line is more cryptic that it appears. There’s the implication that the hero of “The Ghost Writer” was never “so nice,” that the person he reveals in the fiction is the person he really is, the person he’s scared to be outside the safety of fiction.
Nathan Fielder isn’t so nice on his TV show. Niceness is an act he wears to get people to trust him, to go along with his plans. Niceness covers his coarseness. Whether he’s kind and genuine outside the show doesn’t matter. Like Philip Roth he finds his art by breaking with niceness and betraying boundaries. It’s up to the viewer at home to decide how to feel.