Goodbye and Thank You, Nathan For You
It was recently announced that after four magnificent seasons, Nathan For You was ending. As a huge fan of the show, this bummed me out because it is human nature to want more of the things that you love. But I also completely understood the decision.
For me, the question isn’t how a show as singularly brilliant and original as Nathan For You could end after only four seasons when, for instance, Mama’s Family lasted six seasons and one hundred and thirty episodes. No, for me the question is how were Fielder and his brilliant collaborators able to sustain such an impossibly complicated, difficult, time and labor-intensive, painstakingly crafted project for four entire seasons?
One of the things that impressed me most about Nathan For You was the sheer amount of time and energy and work went into every segment. On a difficulty level as well as a quality level, Nathan For You was on a different evolutionary plane than pretty much everything else on television.
I wasn’t just impressed or entertained or amused by Nathan For You at its ambitious, brain-melting, reality-warping best: I was genuinely in awe of the show. It wasn’t just a masterpiece of the form: at its apex it was something approaching a miracle.
The elevator pitch of Nathan For You I suppose would be that a well-meaning but deeply deluded business school graduate/comedy professional helps out small, desperate businesses with stunts that are simultaneously insane and weirdly inspired. But that description does not do justice to the way Fielder used business to explore our messy humanity and unfathomably complicated relationships with each other and the world around us.
Fielder didn’t just dream up unusually cerebral scenarios for a hidden-camera show a la Candid Camera; no, he created entire elaborate false realities for himself and his often perplexed clients to inhabit.
Nathan For You never made anything easy when it could be ridiculously, surreally hard. It inevitably set the difficulty level to “impossible”, then realized its audacious ambitions all the same. At its weakest, Nathan For You was about how unnecessarily complicated and convoluted Fielder made everything, how he created ridiculously involved Rube Goldberg contraptions and then watched everything somehow fall into place.
At its best, Nathan For You didn't just amuse and entertain. It made you think and opened up the doors of perception the way Kurt Vonnegut novels, Charlie Kaufman’s writing and Andy Kaufman’s comedy all did before it. Fielder was an accidental surrealist, a post-modernist who used the real world as his clay and shaped and molded it into spectacular and spectacularly strange new shapes.
Nothing seemed beyond the show’s reach. For the finale of one season, Fielder embarked on an ambitious regiment that required him to both learn tightrope walking and become another person through prosthetics for a sake of a single episode. That would reflect an insane, perhaps unhealthy level of commitment and preparation for an entire movie or television series. It’s a testament to the perverse, masochistic level of care and effort that went into Nathan For You that all of that time and work and effort went into a single episode.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Fielder a genius. That word might not even go far enough. I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I say that there are episodes of Nathan For You worthy not just of Emmys or Peabodys but Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes.
That is particularly true of what will now turn out to be the show’s finale, “Finding Frances”, a rightfully revered two-hour long episode that made a hilariously unconvincing Bill Gates impersonator who had popped up in previous seasons one of the most heartbreaking and poignant figures in the history of television while simultaneously saying something bittersweet and profound about Fielder’s own emotional journey over the course of the show.
Fielder and Nathan For You are going out on top, at the peak of their brilliance and creative powers. I’ll miss the show, of course, and anticipate Fielder’s next project but more than anything I will appreciate and treasure Nathan For You for the miracle that it was.
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