"What you're going to see tonight is 100 percent real," Nathan Fielder says, moments before he attempts to pick the lock on handcuffs to press a button that will stop a robot arm from pulling his pants down in front of an audience of children and one police officer who will charge him as a sex offender if he fails to stop the robot in time.
This is Nathan for You, and the stunt above occurs in the Season 1 episode "The Claw of Shame," the installment that catapulted Fielder's series into one of the best shows of the decade. Is the stunt real? Is it fake? For Nathan for You and Fielder, reality is like a philosopher's cat. There is no answer and there is every answer; it is real and staged at the same time. No other show in the last 10 years (and beyond) has made you doubt yourself so often, but Nathan for You transforms that energy into a strange affirmation of the human condition.
As the opening credits will tell you, Nathan for You is ostensibly about Fielder's attempts to use his business degree from a Canadian school (where he got really good grades) to help small businesses succeed using out-of-the-box ideas that would get him barred from conducting business of any kind were it not for the camera crew and support of Comedy Central. Examples of those ideas? A realtor who eased buyers' nervousness by guaranteeing the homes she sold were free of ghosts or demonic energy by using a medium to screen the houses, a moving company that reduced overhead by using free labor from people who believed they were taking part in a new fitness craze of Fielder's creation, a Hollywood gift shop that lured in tourists by telling them they were playing paying customers in a feature film being shot there (and to avoid a charge of fraud, Nathan had to make an actual film out of the footage and enter it into a film festival, which he also created just for this stunt).
The ideas are so preposterous — remember Dumb Starbucks? — that what we see must be fake, but that's just the baseline the show puts out there. The real trick being played isn't on the unsuspecting electronics business owner who is convinced by Nathan to lower his prices so much that Best Buy has to price match at a severe loss, the trick being played is on us, the viewers, who wrestle with what reality the show operates in. It's performance comedy on par with the legendary Andy Kaufman, who was always steps ahead of his audience and fully committed to the ploy.
While Nathan for You is constantly stomping on the thin ice that separates truth from fiction, whether Fielder is creating the truth or not, the crooked reality of the series gets bent even further through fortunate happenstance or develops into something so authentically human it'll move you to tears. These are things even Nathan couldn't foresee. The realtor who sold ghost-free homes, for example, admits, to Nathan's surprise, that she was choked by a ghost in Switzerland and fully believes in the supernatural, buying into Fielder's ridiculous idea too much and having an exorcism performed on her by an outrageous priest. A group of penny-pinchers looking for cheap gas is tasked with hiking for hours in the Los Angeles hills in order to file their rebates, and your mind will nudge you with doubt, telling you that these are paid actors in on everything — who would spend a night with strangers in the woods just to save a little over 10 bucks on gas? But then these tightwads, whose only connection previously was a desire to spend as little as possible, end up sitting around a campfire and telling some of their deepest, personal stories to each other, forming a bond and a circle of hugs that will last a lot longer than their freshly filled gas tanks. It's such an astonishingly real moment, it has to be real, right? It's in these moments that Nathan for You suddenly becomes TV's realest show, even though it's surrounded by unreal moments. It's also why Nathan for You is both the best comedy and best reality show of the decade.
And if that isn't real enough, Nathan for You strives to create a new reality for Nathan's operations by giving them life beyond his show. In a Season 4 episode, Nathan helps a shipping company skirt tariffs on smoke detectors by attempting to reclassify smoke detectors as musical instruments by putting together a band that uses them in a hit song. That band, The Banzai Predicament, has a bandcamp page and is on Spotify, and those smoke detectors slap. When noticing that Taiga, the company that made his favorite jacket, published a tribute to an author who was a holocaust denier, he sought to start his own jacket company and donate the profits to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. The company has since given the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars. "The Movement," the exercise fad used by the moving company to lower payroll by replacing employees with fitness enthusiasts, has its own book that you can buy. These aren't Dunder-Mifflin T-shirts or Bazinga mugs, these are real things taking a life of their own outside of the show.
All of this can't happen without the show's attention to casting. The participants Nathan finds usually come from Craigslist, the online cesspool of deception and desperation, carving out a niche of people who are so bizarre and brazenly honest that they have to be real, despite the quirks that beg otherwise. But Nathan for You's greatest character — and maybe its greatest con — is Nathan himself. The character on the show, who I assume is a slightly modified version of the real Nathan Fielder, is the show's constant and becomes the series' most interesting experiment.
Toward the end of Season 1 and beyond, Nathan for You begins to explore Nathan's isolation and longing for companionship (the private investigator Brian Wolfe, who turned multiple appearances on Nathan for You into his own show on Investigation Discovery, once called Nathan "the wizard of loneliness"). It's a stunning turn for the show that bleeds through the rest of the series, painfully realized as he begs actresses he's hired for a project to repeat scripted dialogue that says that they love him so he can feel what it's like to be loved, or when he hires an escort named Maci who was intended for a friend but is instead used by Nathan to fulfill his own desire for connection.
That last part comes in the series finale, the wonderfully suspenseful and formula-breaking two-hour "Finding Frances," an episode in which Nathan helps Bill Heath, a Bill Gates impersonator who has appeared on the show a few times, find the love of his life that he let go decades ago. Nathan breaks down Bill's intentions as both cries for attention and an honest yearning for an old crush, and finds strange parallels with his own existence, which he's been feeding with his growing feelings for Maci. As Nathan sets about helping Bill move forward with his life, he manages to do the same with his own by visiting Maci halfway across the country. Their growing relationship, which at first seemed like another gag, begins to feel more authentic with each moment that passes — there's that nagging question again: Is anything real on this show? — crushing our own doubts that what we're witnessing is the manufactured magic of television.
The final minutes of Nathan for You find Nathan and Maci sitting in a park near a construction site, awkwardness overflowing. Maci tells Nathan that it's weird to do this reunion with all the cameras around, so Nathan suggests they can make it feel more natural with a camera shot from a drone. The two hold hands, and the drone pulls backward into the sky, taking in the whole scene from afar and leaving us to emotionally stew in what we've witnessed: the real (?) connection between two people. And in that moment, tears streaming down your eyes from the beauty of what you just saw, you realize that everything — Nathan's feelings, this relationship, every single stunt and lunatic involved in the show — was absolutely real*.
Nathan for You is streaming on Hulu.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)