THE PREMISE of Comedy Central’s reality-TV spoof Nathan For You is simple: Nathan Fielder, a comedian and business school graduate from Vancouver, British Columbia, helps struggling small business owners revamp their brands and make more money. But this is Comedy Central, not Bravo. Fielder’s goal is not to help these people succeed but to introduce the most over-the-top, ridiculous idea and see how far the show’s “contestants” will allow him to go. This is the show that spawned “Dumb Starbucks” in early 2014 and uploaded a (fake) video of a pig rescuing a baby goat trapped in a pond in 2013. Both were later revealed to be elaborate stunts assembled for the purposes of Nathan For You. Both went viral.
Dumb Starbucks was Fielder’s suggestion to a struggling coffee shop owner, the goat-pig video a solution to flagging attendance at a zoo. Of course, neither worked. The twist at the end of an episode of Nathan For You is usually the same: Nathan finds some way to reap any and all benefit from his stunts, leaving his clients back at square one. For example, he tells the zoo owner that it feels cheap to put the zoo’s name on the pig-rescuing-goat video — the one that’s racked up millions of YouTube hits and been featured on countless websites and news broadcasts.
It’s this twist that makes Nathan For You such an effective satire. It calls to mind the botched renovations on TLC’s early 2000s home-makeover show Trading Spaces, or the Canadian show Restaurant Makeover, whose handiwork spelled the death of many Toronto-area restaurants. The homeowners and restaurateurs are shit out of luck, but the hosts’ plastic smiles and gelled hair continue to beam out from our TV screens week after week.
If Nathan For You’s shtick strikes you as cruel, you might want to skip The Comeback. In 2005, HBO premiered the half-hour comedy starring Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, the star of a popular ’90s sitcom who returns to TV in an ensemble sitcom called Room and Bored, where she’s surrounded by shirtless or bra-less twentysomething actors. She first delivers what becomes her catchphrase on the sitcom — “I don’t want to see that!” — when her character walks in on two such lightly clothed actors going at it on the living room couch.
On November 9, the show made a comeback of its own with a belated second season. The same cast of Hollywood opportunists is back: Valerie’s beloved hairdresser, Mickey (Robert Michael Morris); her younger sitcom co-star Juna Millken (Malin Åkerman); Room and Bored’s co-creator — and Val’s archnemesis — Paulie G. (Lance Barber); and Jane (Laura Silverman), the producer of the reality show that Room and Bored’s network decides to film simultaneously alongside the sitcom.
If that’s not enough meta for you, in the new season, Paulie G. has created a series for HBO based on his experience working with Valerie on Room and Bored. The HBO show-within-a-show is called Seeing Red, and when Valerie — who has cobbled together a crew of students to film a new reality TV pilot she hopes to sell to Bravo — finds out about Seeing Red, she auditions for and lands the part that Paulie G. had modeled on Valerie herself.
The show-within-a-show concept plays out differently in Nathan For You: amazingly, the series has spawned its own spin-off reality shows. In the first season, Fielder wants to help private detective Brian Wolfe by creating a Yelp account for his services. It doesn’t fly, but the skeptical detective — who calls Fielder “the wizard of loneliness” — did benefit from his appearance on the show: he is now the star of Cry Wolfe, a reality series on the Investigation Discovery network that aired in June. A second-season participant, the realtor Sue Stanford, is also pursuing her own reality show after Fielder’s far-fetched idea to market her as LA’s preeminent “ghost realtor” — so called because she guarantees a ghost-free home — actually stuck. Stanford kept the website ghostfreehome.com, adopted the Twitter handle @TheGhostRealtor, and even held onto the laughable logo that Fielder created for her: her torso on a Casper-esque ghost’s body.
In another episode, Fielder proposes that the owner of an independent cinema implement a rule against sharing popcorn, thus enabling him to sell more of it. When the man demurs — won’t he lose customers? — Fielder goes for the hard sell: “If Edison was worried about his candle customers, he would have never invented the light bulb.” It’s a funny line, delivered in Fielder’s signature deadpan, but what’s even funnier is that the cinema owner quotes it back to him seconds later, after agreeing to try his no-sharing plan. Fielder is no more qualified to give business advice than any other schmuck with a BA, and yet the video cameras surrounding Fielder give him a seal of authenticity — as if the cameras should make you trust him more.
Like those ever-trusting business owners, Valerie gauges her success on the presence of video cameras. In the season one finale of The Comeback, Valerie — who just moments earlier was mortified that the uncensored version of herself had been broadcast for all of America to see — is thrilled to discover that her reality show has been picked up for a second season based on the first episode alone. “That never happens!” she squeals, and gives Jane a big hug.
If the first season of The Comeback had you wondering if Valerie could demean herself any more, season two answers with a resounding, “Yup!” The depiction of the television industry in the second season of The Comeback is extremely dark. Valerie has busied herself for the past decade with made-for-TV horror movies, a stint on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and other low-level acting jobs. While filming her new reality show alongside Seeing Red, she keeps reminding herself that the last time around, she made the mistake of taking herself too seriously. “Lesson learned,” she says.
What’s striking — and funny — about The Comeback’s treatment of Hollywood bullshit is the eagerness with which Valerie eats it up. Season one had a happy ending, but it was still a tragedy: Valerie’s happiness in Hollywood depends on her constant degradation. In the topsy-turvy worlds of The Comeback and Nathan For You, there is no salvation without humiliation.
Like Nathan For You, The Comeback is a darkly comic vision of Hollywood — specifically, the television industry, and more specifically, the televised makeover. Both shows parody reality TV while giving their audiences a good, hard look at how the reality sausage is made. The Comeback’s premise is that we’re seeing the raw footage of what will become a polished, edited reality show. In the pilot episode, Valerie keeps looking at the camera and making a “time out” signal with her hands when she says something she doesn’t want included in the show. Eventually, Jane tells her not to bother — they’ll just edit out whatever they don’t need. This is comforting until Valerie sees the finished product and realizes that they “needed” all the most unflattering moments: the ones where Valerie appears selfish, egomaniacal, and a little crazy.
Nathan For You and The Comeback have a reputation for awkward and “cringe-inducing” humor, the same words that were used to describe The Office when it first aired in the US just a few months before the premiere of The Comeback in 2005. All three programs share a hyperawareness of the camera: The Office’s camera crew was constantly walking around to the side of Michael Scott’s office when the boss would shut his door, sneaking in shots through cracks in the window blinds. In season two of The Comeback, Valerie cannot stop referencing the cameras; she’s repeatedly asked to ignore them and get on with her work. On Nathan For You, Fielder often makes a show of setting up a scenario specifically so the cameras can catch it. In one segment from the second season, Fielder has the owner of a car wash present him with an “employee of the month” plaque — and a cash bonus — while the rest of the employees line up and applaud at Fielder’s insistence.
Nathan For You and The Comeback explicitly put the unappetizing process of making a TV show front and center. It’s like watching footage of chickens on a factory farm: they’ll taste delicious as long as you don’t contemplate how they ended up on your plate.
Reality has become the sort of easy target that TV in general used to be, before The Sopranos and its prestige cable ilk rescued it from the ditch and spit-polished it to the level of Art — the kind we feel comfortable, even proud, to brag to our friends about consuming. But reality TV has splintered into so many subgenres that it’s difficult to talk about it in such general terms. There’s garbage like The Real Housewives, but there’s also the long-running RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has undoubtedly helped push transgender actors (like Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox) and characters (like the transitioning Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, on the Amazon original series Transparent) into the mainstream.
The Comeback and Nathan For You aren’t so much critiques of reality TV’s artistic merit as they are damning satires of the undeniably exploitative conditions under which reality shows — and TV shows in general — are made. In its new season, The Comeback takes aim in particular at the exploitation at the heart of many prestige cable shows, shows that may be glazed with a drizzling of ganache but that are made with the same cheap ingredients as the lowliest of reality shows. Of course these programs are at times sad, cruel, and difficult to stomach: they force our gaze in the direction of the people and situations that usually disappear with a wave of HBO’s magic wand.
In an episode of The Comeback’s upcoming season called “Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees,” Valerie is made to stand on set in her character’s trademark baggy tracksuit flanked by two completely naked, completely shaved women for what will be edited to look like one of Paulie G.’s sexual fantasies — he’s imagining them while Valerie performs fellatio, “so that I can get aroused.” I watched a painfully uncomfortable Valerie sandwiched between the two naked women panting and moaning in simulated bliss while the entire crew watches, slack-jawed, and I thought, I don’t want to see that.
Lara Zarum is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.