Nathan For You, which premiered its second season last night on Comedy Central, has been described as a prank show, but I have to disagree. The surreality achieved is closer to performance art.
In one of segment Nathan, who posits himself as a consultant to small businesses in the series, suggested real estate agent Sue Stanford re-brand herself as the Ghost Realtor.
To this end they called a psychic to identify any ghosts on a property, and then consequently brought in an exorcist to deal with a resident "incubus"... As well as Sue's back pain.
Tell me this conversation between her and a potential buyer about an incubus in the house couldn't play alongside a Mike Kelley exhibit.
The nicety overlaying unspeakable undercurrents! The business manner even dealing with occult horror! Oh my God, it's perfect. Sue Stanford's latent belief in ghosts clearly found some kind of valve in these moments. Is that a "prank," per se, to give someone an outlet over which they wield agency?
Prank shows are vehicles to show unwitting people in extremity: meltdowns over towed cars, blow ups at service people, unsuspecting bystanders white-knuckling it through personal nightmares. But Nathan For You keeps all its cards on the table. No one is ambushed or unwitting, and coercing bad behavior is not the point. The editing is unfailingly generous toward, even protective of, the people he engages with, usually making Nathan the ultimate butt of the joke and turning everyday people into momentary heroes and adventurers.
It does also inherently reveal the absurd lengths people will go in the name of cross-promotion/personal gain under the auspices of a reality show, but hell, so did Family Double Dare. Thanks to Nathan's overall magnanimity, it maintains a sense of joy I haven't seen since Andy Kaufman. (Or at least, recordings of Andy Kaufman.)
Nathan Fielder is saying some next-level art school shit about reality TV and a culture dedicated to self-branding, and he's making it wildly entertaining and fun for everybody. And that's something legitimately great.
[ Images via Comedy Central]
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