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Nathan For You: “Pet Store/Maid Service”

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The three premises in tonight’s episode would be extraordinary setups for a run-of-the-mill prank show. But because Nathan For You is so much more than a run-of-the-mill prank show—more profound, more ambitious, more moving—the show is not content to dwell on any of its brilliant setups. I often use the word “organic” to describe Nathan For You because the show allows its ideas to sprout like a sapling, with all the strange offshoots and disarming beauty that image entails. So an inspired concept that might serve as a job well done on another show serves as a mere seed here.

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The episode opens with one of the more taboo business-building ventures that Nathan has undertaken, as he seeks to market the Pet Mania pet store with prime ad placement in a pet cemetery. It’s a logical extension of the show’s past work, as Fielder and his creative team often mock capitalism by forcing it into contexts where it doesn’t belong. Injecting crass commerce into the mourning process (the pet mourning process, at least) is another step along that road. Still, we’re talking about death here, so the opening minutes create the sense that Nathan needs to tread carefully.

He doesn’t, thankfully. Nathan’s greatest strength is his utter commitment to the tasks he undertakes. He makes the mockery of pet death palatable—and deeply satisfying—not by being delicate but by throwing himself into the topic wholeheartedly. To give himself the full experience of the potential customers he’s hoping to reach (and to justify the existence of his gravestone ad), Nathan concocts his own authentic pet death. “Sometimes he would even stay on my finger without flying away,” he muses in a reminiscence of his pet fly, Buzz. “I wonder why he did that.” If your heart didn’t melt a little after that line, you’re made of harder stuff than I am. And just like that, Nathan has us on his side.

With the emotional heart of the segment in place, we can proceed to the farcical funeral. The rabbi, who hasn’t enjoyed Buzz’s story like we have, snickers briefly at the notion of a memorial service for a housefly. Nathan rebukes him: “Don’t you think that’s a little insensitive?” The rabbi considers for a moment and replies, “What’s important is the connection that you have.” Nice save, and it has the added benefit of being the truth—this is a pretty good rabbi. Solomon, the mumbling Abso Lutely Productions staffer who you may recognize from last season’s Quiznos blind date, took a shine to Buzz and returns here to pay his respects. It takes nearly as long for Solomon to figure out how to orient himself (Nathan: “Stand wherever you want!”) as it does for him to deliver his eulogy.

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By warming us up with the sweet, ludicrous tale of Buzz, Nathan For You has us in the perfect place of vulnerability to deliver its punchline: a garish $7,000, three-ton gravestone that towers over the yard and invites potential Pet Mania customers to “mention this gravestone for a 15% discount.” Mike, the graveyard proprietor, is perturbed: “You notice there’s nothing else around like that,” he says. But when he plopped Buzz’s tiny casket into the dirt, Nathan switched instantly from mourning mode into business mode, so he’s unmoved by Mike’s protest. Everyone has their price, Nathan surmises, and in this case, he’s correct. The price for Mike to allow the eyesore to remain in this supposedly hallowed resting place is a mere $2,000, which Nathan happily agrees to pay. The proprietor of a pet cemetery is trying to turn a profit off of pet owners’ sorrow, too—Nathan is simply more up-front about his motives.

The most fun surprise of the house-cleaning experiment is the simple fact that it works: Nathan’s logic that 40 maids could clean an entire home in just six minutes is so simplistic and daft that I had no expectation he’d pull it off—I figured the the segment would be interesting for the weird inefficiencies that might arise when Nathan tried to cram so many house cleaners into one place. Not so. By assigning each of the 40 team members a specific task—complete with a stern pop-quiz on the bus to make sure they’re ready—he manages to turn a tangled mess of semi-interested humanity into a mostly orderly house-cleaning machine. The process pays off when the homeowner, Jim, declares, “It hasn’t looked this good since I moved in.” Sure, they missed the six-minute goal by a couple minutes and change. But I’m happy to accept that shortfall in exchange for the hilarious shot of Nathan getting all wound up to shout “Go!” only to watch the maids slowly shuffle off the bus.

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Nathan For You never wastes an opportunity to explore human nature, so while Nathan’s house-cleaning experiment is underway, he launches a sort of side experiment: How close a relationship can he form with the homeowner, Jim, in a mere six minutes? Closer than I thought: Jim opens up about his past loves and future prospects for companionship with only the gentlest prompting from Nathan. “Yada yada yada, she married her ex-boyfriend, and I’m in L.A. training dogs,” Jim says, one of those bits of accidental poetry that so often spill from the mouths of Nathan For You participants.

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The Nathan character is built to deal with a certain resistance to his weird ideas and off-key persona, and usually, that’s what he gets. This passive-aggressive stance (emphasis on the passive) only enhances the moments where people let down their guard and try to engage with Nathan—because the real trap of the character is that he only needs the slightest encouragement to drop the awkward distance and try to make friends forever.

So when Candy says goodbye to Nathan by politely saying, “Who knows, maybe we could do something in the future,” any regular Nathan For You viewer realizes that she’s stepped in that trap, but she has no idea. Nathan asks her to elaborate on that “something” they could do together before he asks, “Um, what are you doing—later tonight?” Candy tells Nathan she’s having a “late snack” (?) with her husband, shutting Nathan down and dashing his confidence. What is the best moment that emerges from the ensuing awkwardness? Is it the agonizingly long period when Nathan scratches the back of neck before muttering, “That’s sweet”? His non-nonchalant declaration that he’s “gotta scoot”? The fist bump? The little whistle he inexplicably emits as he heads out the door? I can’t choose.

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The most astonishing experiment on tonight’s episode, though, is the focus-group adventure that has four people—representing an Asian/Black/Hispanic/old “cross-section of American society”—reshape the Nathan persona to their whims. The bubbly, camera-gazing, jewelry-wearing, glad-handing character that emerges from the focus group’s self-assured nitpicking is an eerie Frankenstein’s monster of American TV stars. After countless years of bombardment by images on television and elsewhere, the four people on Nathan’s team have osmotically absorbed the cloying mannerisms of mass-media fakery, and now we see them project a distorted assemblage of those mannerisms onto poor Nathan.

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Yet just like the usual Nathan character, this reconstructed Nathan is motivated by a desire to please everybody all the time. On that level, they’re really quite similar. The main difference is that the focus group’s version of Nathan isn’t held back by the crushing burden of his own self-awareness—which figures, since Nathan outsources that awareness to these four strangers. When he says that the experiment briefly made him feel like a better version of himself, it makes sense, because instead of the voices in his head telling him what an awkward failure he is, these replacement voices tell him things like “Body motions are great” and “This is you! Be proud of who you are!” (The latter line is especially bizarre since the V-neck-wearing, hand-gesturing Nathan is so obviously not himself—he is, in fact, two layers of artifice obscuring the real Nathan Fielder.)

The climactic encounter with Brian Wolfe, the thuggish private investigator from last season’s finale who proclaimed Nathan a “wizard of loneliness,” tears away Nathan’s glossy new sheen with stunning speed. Hardly any time has passed before Wolfe is pelting his old buddy with insults once again, calling him a “goober,” a “dork,” and a “nerd” in short order. He sees that this is the same awkward, eager-to-please Nathan as ever, and as a natural bully, he responds accordingly. When Wolfe says that Nathan couldn’t even catch a football, Fielder performs the moment perfectly, allowing his throat to clench up a bit as he squeaks an unconvincing protest, “I could catch the football.”

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A defeated Nathan returns to his mobile focus group only to find that his cheerleaders have turned on him. They now disdain the style that, earlier that night, they had declared to be a vision of perfection. That’s the kicker: These people are just as insecure as Nathan is. So they get defensive and shift blame when the meeting with the P.I. goes awry, because their position of authority is suddenly in question. It’s disappointing to see Nathan’s puppetmasters lash out at the puppet, and my affection for Nathan runs so deep at this point in the series that I got angry with them. But there was no need for pique. Nathan gets the last word, putting the disloyal bunch in their place with the perfect parting shot. “I realized there was a major flaw with my entire experiment,” he says in the closing voiceover. “This new personality was based on the judgment of four people who had agreed to work out of the back of a moving box truck.” Caught up in the heady thrill of remaking another human being, the focus group missed an essential truth: They were the dupes all along.

Stray observations:

  • Brian Wolfe, inspirational speaker: “There’s nothing wrong with being a fucking nerd.”
  • This episode crams a whole lot into 21 minutes of screen time, and all three experiments left me delighted and wanting more—the telltale sign of smart editing. I especially want to know how long that horrid gravestone remained in the cemetery. Is it still there?
  • Fielder did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit yesterday, and his answers offer a few interesting insights into the show, including a couple new details about the bizarre grandson-urine moment from last season.
  • Via Fielder’s Twitter, here’s an extended cut of fake Bill Gates’ scene in The Web from last week’s episode:

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