When a camera is recording, everything changes. People become acutely aware of their every movement, facial feature, and word said. The longer a camera rests on someone, the more prolonged time seems to be, and the more uncomfortable they become. Cameras are unforgiving mirrors whose reflections can’t be viewed until later, either edited, color corrected, or fed into a narrative that delineates from the reality of the original moment. Thus reality television, from Jersey Shore to Survivor to The Bachelor, has never felt immensely real. The participants don’t fear the camera. They actively seek it in order for personal gain, and even still, every line sounds like a sound bite or production-fed scene. That inauthenticity is not the case for Comedy Central’s Nathan For You.
Created by Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder, a business graduate with self-proclaimed “really good grades,” the show explores the limits people will go to for the chance for recognition. Nathan first approaches various struggling small stores with his production crew under the disguise that they’re filming a business improvement show. After introducing himself, Nathan proceeds to pitch an unconventional plan to help solve the store owner’s problem.
The catch? Each plan is more absurd than the last. When a realtor wasn’t selling as many homes as she would have liked, Nathan proposed she become the “ghost realtor,” someone who would alert homebuyers of the house’s spiritual presence or lack thereof. When an electronics store started losing customers to the neighborhood Best Buy, Nathan posited that they manipulate the retail chain’s price match guarantee by advertising their television sets at an extremely low price but making them nearly impossible to purchase (such as entering a room with an alligator). And most famously, Nathan made both national and international news when he opened up a cafe called Dumb Starbucks, an exact replica of the coffee empire except every menu item had the word dumb in front of it.
Through all of this, the show has found a way to subvert star power hungry reality tropes by allowing sheer awkwardness to serve as the main theme. By welcoming people’s queasiness towards the unknown predicaments they find themselves in, and the outrageous plans they cautiously sign up for, Comedy Central’s Nathan For You stands out in a cluttered televised crowd. It has carved a niche in the reality television market as hyperreality television — something that blurs the line between an authentic shared reality and its simulation.
In each episode, Nathan meticulously crafts his own “reality” in order to realize his hidden comedic mission, and those who inhabit it are merely pawns in a social game. Unlike many reality shows whose hosts provide commentary or let the featured “players” take center stage, Nathan and his cameras are just as unwitting to what will happen as the business owners are. By staying stone faced and off-puttingly “normal,” his clearly prodding questions are inconspicuous to those he interacts with, allowing them to fill in the blanks with their own personalities. The best and most obscure moments of the show arise from when the people he’s manipulating say or do something that even Nathan wasn’t prepared for, such as a gas station owner admitting to drink his grandson’s pee out of nowhere.
Unbelievable, right? Well not so much — not anymore. On reality TV, stars are becoming more than just the persona they embody on screen. Anything is conceivable in the era of the unbelievable. This is because the line between reality TV and reality is not just blurring or moving, it’s simply fading away. In 2016, we saw reality television reach new positions of prevalence when Donald Trump used his reality television riches to attain the highest seat of power in the United States. This same coin can be applied to Oprah who had such a powerful acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globes that it prompted hundreds of thousands Twitter users to use the hashtag #Oprah2020, a rally cry for her presidency. It seems that reality TV is not just limited to the screen anymore, it’s spilling all over society in powerful ways.
When returning to the screen in 2017, Nathan For You had the challenging task of returning to its antics due to his growing cult-like popularity and new reality-exhausted American culture. Season four of Nathan For You had fewer episodes — Nathan created a syndicate network of spies to take down Uber, concocted the perfect anecdote to be used on any late-night talk show, and opened America’s first computer repair shop staffed by asexuals — yet included a groundbreaking two-hour plus special, a finale so bold that it reexamines the point of the show itself.
While the first half of the finale has moments accustomed to the series, such as a fake movie audition and staging a 57th year highschool reunion, the unconventional journey of Nathan and previous guest star Bill Heath turns into a tale about perceived identities and the duplicitous connection between them. As the duo searches for Heath’s long lost lover, a woman named Frances, in small-town Arkansas, Nathan and Heath (a self-proclaimed Bill Gates impersonator) try to uncover moments from Heath’s past that may lead them to this woman from another life. By the end, laughs turns to gasps as a new level of self-exploration, realization, and bitterness set in and the journey reveals what genuine connection can mean for both men involved.
The beginning of Nathan’s undoing, and perhaps the show itself, is when Nathan meets an escort named Maci. Originally hired to test and see if Heath could hold a conversation a woman, Nathan takes the opportunity to talk to Maci himself. What could seem like a one-time use of someone’s profession instead becomes a foil for Nathan. Both Maci and Nathan play a role for someone else. Maci becomes the woman men want her to be for a price. Nathan becomes a business lifeline from television for those in need. Both embody a character that helps those who are reaching out in the first place. This personality dissonance, the character versus the person, begins to manifest in Nathan, who up to this point has always been “Nathan For You,” as he begins to interact with someone whose job it is to dupe in a similar way.
As the episode continues, and Nathan eventually unearths Heath’s past, finds Frances, and helps him move on in Los Angeles, the story doesn’t conclude. While the duo had hit a rut during their search for Frances, Nathan had continued to regularly meet Maci — at restaurants, bars, even his own hotel room. Thus, minutes before the episode ends, Nathan flies back to Little Rock to be with Maci one last time. As they both exchange an affectionate, “I like you,” it seems their relationships has gone beyond strictly client business..
Sitting on a park bench, Maci asks, “It’s kind of weird having the cameras around right?”
Nathan responds, “We can turn them off if you want.”
Maci: “Could we?”
Nathan: “Do you want to?”
Maci: “I feel like… does that defeat the purpose maybe?”
Nathan: “What’s the purpose?”
Maci: “You’re filming something. It’s kind of the purpose right?”
Immediately, Nathan retracts into himself. In one brief glance he stares at the camera, and in the other, he looks at his crew, clearly beside himself. For this is the purpose of the show, the camera needs to be on. But in this moment, it appears something real might be brewing outside of this reality. Without the camera to confirm it, however, does it exist? After several seconds, Nathan admits that they have a drone, and that one last drone shot could be cool. And in seconds, a drone pans out from the two holding hands on the bench, revealing the five person crew, and recedes into the distance. Where Nathan once felt close to us, and us in on his secret, we the audience are cast away… transforming a reality television show into an actual reality for two people.