During his appearance on Conan last night, Nathan Fielder provided a brief preview of “Horseback Riding/Man Zone.” Clad in a black windbreaker not unlike the one he’s worn in multiple episodes of Nathan For You—including season two’s “Pet Store/Maid Service”—Fielder explained to Conan O’Brien why the jacket was not manufactured by his previously preferred brand, Canadian outerwear manufacturer Taiga.
Fielder: For my whole life, or the past 10 years, I wore this windbreaker by a company in Vancouver named Taiga […] They’re only in Vancouver, they make really good jackets, you know, so I liked them.
Conan O’Brien: And you wore the same—
Fielder: I wore it in my show—it’s in almost every episode of the first two seasons. In between the seasons, I found out—this is true—I found out they had published a tribute to a notorious Holocaust denier in their winter catalog.
Fielder: Yeah. I gave you a photo of it.
O’Brien: I think we have it.
Fielder: It’s like right next to—
O’Brien: This is a tribute?
Fielder: —to a Holocaust denier. And they published it right next to their winter socks and balaclavas there.
The anecdote is more or less retold in the second episode of Nathan For You’s third season: Nathan loved the jacket, Taiga’s endorsement of infamous journalist Doug Collins came to his attention between seasons, and because he couldn’t know if The North Face, Marmot, or Patagonia “weren’t hiding dark secrets as well,” he decided to launch his own outerwear line in response. But the urgency in both tellings omits a crucial detail, the sort of eliding that allows Nathan For You to function as a television series: The Taiga-Collins controversy is more than a decade old. Eagle-eyed members of the Nathan For You audience will notice the newspaper headlines from The Province and The Jewish Independent date back to December 2001 and January 2002, respectively; second-screen viewers will arrive at a similar conclusion as soon as they plug “Taiga + Doug Collins” into a search engine.
But for everyone else, the news story and Nathan’s reaction to it will have weight, relevancy, and immediacy because we accept the authority of Nathan’s voiceover and the truth in his choice of words. At least I did, until I started doing the background work for this review. (Look: I’m no John Teti, as you’ve probably deduced by now.) It’s Nathan’s “recent” discovery, not the world’s; he says “winter catalog,” but doesn’t attach a year to it. Within the confines of the segment and the Conan interview, he controls the story and the way it’s told. It’s a masterful feat of misdirection, as is the Summit Ice product demo in “Horseback Riding/Man Zone,” which picks up from a cliffhanger (adventure-sports wordplay!) in which Nathan establishes the brand’s support of “Holocaust awareness education” but fails to mention that Holocaust awareness education is Summit Ice’s entire identity. “With the manager intrigued,” the voiceover says, over footage of Nathan shaking hands with said manager, “we set up a time for him to see our display later that week.” (The manager’s name is Eric? Or Erick? Surely he can’t be an “Erik”—what kind of idiot would spell their name that way?) Nathan makes no reference to what the display will entail, or the volume of swastikas it will contain. Nathan is in control, and the chances for surprise are astronomically high.
That control is crucial to the remainder of “Horseback Riding/Man Zone.” (Notice that the surprise-by-omission extends even to the episode title.) The Summit Ice gambit is more than just a bridging segment between this week’s primary business rescues—its inclusion keeps the episode on Nathan For You’s regular path. If there’s anything uniting all three segments, it’s skeptical retailers: Adventure 16 manager Eric, Park Place Stable owner Joy Lazarus, and the elegantly hatted American Gun Works employee all pierce Nathan’s armor of bullshit in one way or another. And because of that, “Horseback Riding/Man Zone” could’ve faltered. The first scheme flies too close to the sun, while the second encounters some insurmountable obstacles. There’s more incredulity here than Nathan is accustomed to encountering, so the episode needs Summit Ice to put it over the top. And nothing says “Over the top” like a mannequin wearing a windbreaker on top of its concentration camp uniform, opposite another mannequin wearing Taiga-branded Nazi regalia.
With success beyond Nathan’s grasp, the game of the episode then becomes one of testing the limits. If Joy and Elizabeth Albert proprietor Susan Kim are going to throw up their defenses so easily, how far can Nathan go before those defenses come up? For Joy, the answer is “pretty damn far”: The Park Place Stable plan eventually encompasses three massive helium weather balloons, two giant “pizza-paddle-like branch blockers” (to protect the balloons from trees) and one miniature scarecrow mounted from a quadcopter drone (to protect the balloons from birds). It’s one of those Nathan For You solutions that begins simple and escalates to wild heights, though the problem it addresses never seems particularly pressing. Joy never voices any concern about limiting her client base to riders weighing less than 220 pounds, nor does she appear hard up for clients in general.
The story’s a little wonky here, but the execution is sublime. It feeds into Nathan’s trust in the benevolence and virtue of brands and businesses, a major theme of Nathan For You generally and “Horseback Riding/Man Zone” specifically. The conclusion of his time at Park Place Stable lays that notion on thick, with purple voiceover prose (“And as the evening fog rolled in over the Malibu hills, I couldn’t help but feel like it might just be the white breath of God opening his mouth to say, ‘Nice work’”) and Nathan’s insistence that there’s something noble in attaching three weather balloons to a grown man on horseback. This is a public service, as is the waiting area for male customers at Elizabeth Albert and the educational mission of Summit Ice. At the stable, he’s pushing hard, and Joy only pushes back upon the suggestion that this will be what she’s remembered for. Not her accomplishments alongside her horses—the paddle-carrying guys being followed by a flying strawman. It’s this that she finally objects to, not Nathan’s habit of referring to her animals as “horsey”s. But since Nathan’s controlling the narrative, on Nathan For You, Joy’s legacy is tied, like Heath, to those balloons.
And though it doesn’t get Joy or Eric to budge, that sort of pressure yields a few comedic diamonds this week. The shiniest of these gems comes out of the encounter with the gun-shop clerk, who quibbles with the weather balloons before dropping some of his personal philosophy on Nathan. “I do not believe in this ‘hug the world’ scenario that you’re describing, where everybody has a right to do everything just because they want to,” he says, as a “ONE RIGHT THAT SECURES THEM ALL” bumper sticker hangs over his left shoulder. But when he continues to lecture the reality-show host on reality, something magical happens: He gets a text message, and his chosen text tone—the old “uh oh” notification noise from ICQ—punctures the whole pompous scene. It’s the best unvarnished punchline of the episode. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Nathan For You wants me to feel superior to anyone on the screen, nor do I think it sets out to humiliate anyone other than the Nathan character. But Sir Topham Hatt over there totally earns his comeuppance, indulging in the type of macho puffery Nathan later affects in the Man Zone.
But with my mind on what Nathan For You isn’t showing us this week, I have to wonder how many gun-shop visits the production had to make before it found this perfect moment. And how many Elizabeth Albert customers refused an invitation to the Man Zone? Nathan’s interactions over cheap beers and royalty-free football aren’t the sharpest of uncomfortable Nathan For You conversations, and the segment peters out after Susan objects to her clientele drinking beer in the backroom. (If only she knew what they were talking about while they were drinking beer…) Following last week’s ambitious premiere, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Horseback Riding/Man Zone” attempts to downplay the mixed results at the stable and the boutique by bundling them with the audacious Summit Ice experiment.
If so, Fielder and team chose a properly outlandish star to hitch their wagon to. Summit Ice is the sort of Nathan For You concept that works within the confines of the episode, but then proceeds to bemuse and amuse in the real world—not quite as hefty as Dumb Starbucks or as potentially viral as “Pig rescues baby goat,” but certain to attract a few lookeeloos—and maybe some sales for the only outdoor apparel brand whose profits all go to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. But none of that money will come through purchases made at Adventure 16, where management feels Summit Ice’s brand identity might be slightly off-putting.
But, as Nathan tells Joy Lazarus, “A legacy isn’t always something you get to choose.” (A sentiment Taiga Works and Doug Collins could certainly attest to.) Once Fielder releases something like Summit Ice into the world, he sacrifices his control over it. In front of his own cameras, he can set up an elaborate, statement-making Holocaust memorial/product display, but if anyone other than Eric encountered that display, Fielder would be in water hotter than any encountered by the late Collins. “Horseback Riding/Man Zone” sees the Nathan character and the real-world Fielder wrestling for control of their own show, but they get a handle on it when it really counts—and then immediately, hilariously lose that control to the level-headed manager of “Southern California’s Premier Outdoor Outfitter.”
- As previously stated, these words weren’t written by John Teti—but they were written by Erik Adams, TV editor, Nathan For You fan, and standby reviewer for the weeks when John’s new editor-in-chief duties prevent him from checking in on Nathan.
- The Man Zone continues a season-three pattern of hidden rooms, following the gator chamber in “Electronics Store.” We can call it a trend if there’s one in next week’s episode.
- The wikiHow-style illustrations of Nathan’s schemes don’t get enough props. The gruesomeness of this “Horseback Riding/Man Zone” had me howling.
- Nathan speaks the truth: “There’s nothing more fun than sitting on an animal that’s bigger than you and riding it around.”