Failure is at the foundation of Nathan For You, and it typically comes as a result of Nathan Fielder’s inability to convince his clients to permanently implement his often ingenious but always unfeasible workarounds. Nathan also flubs nearly all of his attempts to create human connection, which is no easy feat considering most of his interactions come within the context of offering proprietors television exposure and complimentary, if terrible advice for their small businesses. Fielder goes to great lengths to ensure that each segment ends with a brutal rejection of his social overtures, and doing so has yielded some Nathan’s best moments, like when Brian Wolfe called him “the wizard of loneliness.” Season three isn’t Nathan For You’s best run of episodes, but it’s the most interesting run, in part because Nathan has stumbled onto a new type of failure. He’s failing to fail.
Our precious, awkward Nathan might be growing up. Compared to his experiences in season two, season three has been a streak of social triumphs. Take for example Nathan’s season-two encounter with Veronique Assouline, whose business was the focus of the second half of “Daddy’s Watching/Party Planner.” It was probably the best opportunity Nathan’s ever had to make a connection with one of his clients, considering his idea to create a shady version of Evite that sends party invitations directly to the spam folders of undesired guests is one of his all-time best. But Nathan fumbles hard, between saying the word “penis” as many times as possible when explaining to Assouline how the system will work, and inviting her to a “party” where the only other guest is Nathan’s creepy, cut-rate Bill Gates impersonator. The segment concludes with him asking Assouline for a parting hug and being curtly denied. Compare that to Nathan’s encounter with Rose Ilandrian in “Hotel/Travel Agent,” which ends with him leaning across her desk to kiss her on the cheek, and her gladly accepting the gesture. Try as he might, he couldn’t repulse her.
“Nail Salon/Fun” features Nathan’s latest surprisingly successful social interaction with someone whose boundaries so elastic, they can’t be violated. Nathan usually has more success creeping out women than men, since he’s armed with awkwardly affectionate gestures like stepping into a woman’s physical space after she’s made clear she doesn’t want him there. But men are just as put off by Nathan’s stunted shtick, and his failure to cultivate male friendships has informed much of the season. Nathan wants bros of his own, and he fears his inability to find them could be related to the fact that he’s just not that much fun. The second segment focuses on Nathan’s quest to find a male friend, which he does mostly out of a desire to scientifically prove himself capable of bringing another person joy. It’s not so much that Nathan wants to find a friend, he wants to find someone willing to endorse his awesomeness. He may not be able to call his new buddy to see if he wants to shoot pool, but he’ll be able to say to someone else “I’d be fun to shoot pool with, and if you don’t believe me, have a look at this peer-reviewed study.”
To find his running buddy, Nathan heads directly to Craig’s List, having had limited success with going to biker bars and sighing loudly until someone’s intrigued enough to have a conversation. He hits some initial snags, owing to the fact that Craig’s List is a penis showroom first and a legitimate marketplace second. But he finally connects with Brendan, an affable galoot with a thirst for Dr. Pepper and a pronounced nerd streak. The former quality is important because, according to the perfectly named Dr. Whimsy Anderson, Nathan will have to obtain two samples of either urine or blood from Brendan in order for her to establish baseline levels of his dopamine and serotonin, then determine how much the chemicals increased as a result of hanging out with Nathan. “So if their serotonin or dopamine levels go up when they’re hanging out with me, that would mean that I’m fun,” says Nathan. “For them, yes,” says Dr. Whimsy, a response that either suggests a dedication to responsible scientific interpretation, or some early skepticism based on her limited interactions with Nathan.
Nathan and Brendan’s day of mirth and merriment begins with Brendan’s lengthy discussion of the red-and-blue color motif in his favorite genre fare, a conversation he silently foreshadowed with his Deathly Hallows tattoo. Then, Nathan suggests a wild-and-crazy trip to a hat shop to try on silly lids. So far, so good. Ain’t no party like a Nathan Fielder party, ‘cause a Nathan Fielder party is montage-friendly. “This is what girls would wear,” says Nathan after putting on a lavender floppy hat, offering a small taste of his observational humor skills. Nathan can tell the hat antics aren’t doing the trick, so he stops next at a go-kart facility in the hopes that a few laps will cause major spikes in Brendan’s neurotransmitters. It seems to do the trick, so Nathan wants to get the second specimen as quickly as possible, before the thrill of spending time with him wears off. It’s Nathan’s first opportunity to alienate his new friend, and it’s honestly tough to say whether or not it goes to plan with so little insight into how Fielder does what he does. Nathan says he and Brendan should do something “totally random,” like go get their blood drawn, and he’s not only open to it, his response veers close to genuine enthusiasm. “Uh…yeah, we can do that, that’d be cool,” says Brendan, and Nathan keeps selling, almost caught off-guard by how quickly they reach an accord.
Nathan might not have expected Brendan to agree to have his blood drawn quite so quickly, but he was certainly prepared for that outcome. They head to a nearby medical clinic, and Nathan has already called ahead to arrange the necessary blood work. To get one more last-minute neurotransmitter boost, Nathan drops a remote-operated fart box in the phlebotomist’s scrubs and attacks it like a drum machine. After parting with Brendan, Nathan reconvenes with Dr. Whimsy to discuss the results, and the numbers are dramatic and incontrovertible. Brendan had an absolute blast. “This person who was with you was not only having fun, but they were happy and they had a greater sense of well-being when they were with you,” says the unsmiling Dr. Whimsy. Nathan gladly takes the win even though he spent the entire day juking the stats.
As with nearly all of Nathan’s interactions, he sees an opportunity to turn an experiment for the show into something more genuine. This is usually the point at which Nathan’s delusion takes over, and the story follows the familiar pattern of Nathan trying to initiate a friendship as a totally unnatural extension of everything that came before it. It’s a more extreme case than usual, because Nathan has to come clean and explain that he stole Brendan’s urine and concealed his motives for the “impromptu” blood test. If a rejection was coming, it would have come after Nathan explained his experiment. But the only thing Brendan rejects is the numerous opportunities Nathan gives him to politely bow out: “Yeah, you just took my urine, I mean…that’s in the past man. I’m fine. I want to go do something today. Let’s go do something exciting.” And with that, the fast friends are fist-bumping on the tower swing at Knott’s Berry Farm to the tune of Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a song selection perfect enough to justify paying royalties just this once. It’s a surprisingly poignant end, and the first time Nathan has walked away from one of his experiments with a genuine smile on his face as opposed to a mannered smirk. The Brendan affair continues Nathan’s unprecedented social hot streak, which includes his time with Ilandrian and the genuine emotion created by the “I love you” scene in “Smokers Allowed.” By season five, the episodes will have titles like “Poker With The Guys/Champagne Brunch With Liz, Lauren, And Rachel.”
The “Fun” segment works so well, it’s a shame that it’s paired with “Nail Salon,” which certainly has its funny moments, but might be the clunkiest and conceptually unambitious bit the show has ever done. The segment begins with one of Nathan’s classic too-literal explanations of a business concept: “For most women, nails are the main way they can express to others what color they like the most.” But there’s too much competition in Altadena’s nail care market, so Nathan pitches shop owner Kim Han on the idea of having free valet service available so women with freshly painted nails won’t chip them while digging for their keys. It’s way too simple an idea by Nathan standards, because what business doesn’t benefit from free valet service? Even customers at the go-kart place would love to spend less time driving and more time driving.
The bigger issue with “Nail Salon” is that it lacks that sort of magical quality the best Nathan segments have, that feeling of shock and awe that leaves you unable to figure out how he could have pulled this off. It also doesn’t feel like an organic story, which is a fatal flaw in so many augmented reality shows. Much of what happens is carefully planned and executed, of course, but the moment it feels that way, the bubble bursts. You can hear the gears turning during “Nail Salon,” which goes from the suggestion of a modest, reasonable customer service upgrade to an Asian stunt driver power-sliding in a Prius with too little narrative glue holding the pieces together. Also, the scene in which Nathan convinces stunt driver Verena Mei to do a stereotypical Asian accent comes across mean-spirited as opposed to remarkably oblivious. That’s not how you make friends, not that Nathan knows any better.
- Fielder’s humor isn’t for everybody, but no one is in a position to question his commitment. The shot of him pouring the urine from the bag into the specimen cup is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen on this show, which is obviously saying a lot.
- Some of the funniest stuff on this show comes from how ridiculously elaborate Nathan’s plots are, even down to their finest details. Nathan puts Brendan’s urine sample into a hollowed-out candle in the restroom, then lights all three wicks to let his “unpaid intern” know it’s ready to be collected. As opposed to, y’know, just leaving it in there.
- The “Fun” segment is reminiscent of the focus group segments of “Pet Store/Maid Service.” I can only wonder how Brendan would have reacted to the gel-haired, v-necked Nathan the focus group came up with.
- Nathan to the faux-flatulent phlebotomist: “You should stay at home if you’re sick. If your bowels are…” “Faux-flatulent phlebotomist” is a great phrase to attempt to say five times fast, if you’re into that kind of thing.
- I did like the key catching scene in “Nail Salon,” which doubles as a simply effective tag.