TV

Why “Nathan for You” Isn’t for Everybody

“It’s getting harder to ignore the show’s habit of putting women in potentially threatening situations to get a laugh”

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Last week, the Comedy Central satire Nathan for You aired an outsize season four finale, “Finding Frances,” an 84-minute epic starring a lonely old man named Bill Heath who had appeared in a previous season as a Bill Gates impersonator. According to the show’s host, Nathan Fielder, while recording DVD commentary for that episode, Bill kept circling back to his regret at not having married an old girlfriend, Frances, decades earlier. Nathan decides it would be a worthy use of the show’s resources to help Bill track down Frances, and the two set off on a strange, winding journey.

It’s also a creepy one. Despite my avowed love for this show and the daring lengths to which it’ll go to emphasize how stupid capitalism makes us look, it’s been harder, these days in particular, to ignore Nathan for You’s habit of putting women in potentially threatening situations to get a laugh.

“Finding Frances” is a digression from the show’s main conceit — Nathan, a real-life graduate of a business school in his native Vancouver, British Columbia, helping mom-and-pop store owners revamp their brands in hilariously counterintuitive ways. Some of these stunts have gone viral, like the famous “Dumb Starbucks” episode, in which Nathan convinces a struggling coffee shop owner to rebrand as a knock-off of the ubiquitous chain store — and, so as not to run afoul of copyright laws, uses the legal defense that the new store is simply an art installation.  

But over time, the show seemed to lean more and more on the character of “Nathan Fielder” — a tragically lonely figure who elevates social unease to an art form — that Nathan for You has been developing since it premiered in 2013. It’s a persona that the real-life Fielder has done little to separate from his own “true” self, an Andy Kaufman–esque refusal to let the mask drop. His desire to help Bill is thus a hand outstretched from one weird loner to another. In a Borat-like setup, the two travel to Frances’s old high school in Arkansas to find out her last name, and even stage a fake high school reunion, inviting her former classmates, to get more information on her current whereabouts.

As is the norm on Nathan for You, much of the humor comes from the elaborate and costly operations that Nathan and the show’s production team conjure up. (In the fourth season’s standout episode, “Shipping Logistics Company,” Nathan hires a band to perform a song using a fire alarm — and manages to land them on local TV — so he can label the product a “musical instrument” and thus save money on the shipping costs.) Bill and Nathan’s excellent adventure is another baroque apparatus put in the service of a relatively trivial pursuit. As the episode goes on, Bill becomes increasingly obsessed with Frances, and when he finally finds out where she lives — and that she’s married — he vows to confront her husband and convince Frances to marry him instead.

It’s not the first time Nathan for You has used women as both bait and catch in its pursuit of laughs. In a season three episode that echoes the “Dumb Starbucks” bit, Nathan helps a bar owner whose business has declined after smoking was banned indoors — by staging a reenactment of a typical night at the bar as a ticketed performance, thereby skirting the no-smoking law. In one scene in which he trains a group of actors, Nathan sits across from a young woman and asks her to repeat, “I love you,” over and over again. She complies, smiling nervously, as a stone-faced Nathan requests, one after another, “Again.” In another episode, in order to attract more women to an online dating site, Nathan hires a man to follow women on their dates so they never feel unsafe. But the joke is that this service makes the women feel less safe; Mark, the man Nathan hires, ominously promises one woman that he’ll make sure to tuck her in at the end of the night, and Nathan ensures her that Mark has all of her personal information “so if you go missing he knows how to track you down.”

The season three finale, “The Hero,” underlines a troubling — and gendered — aspect of comedy’s power dynamics that has surfaced in recent reports on sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry. The episode culminates in a big stunt in which Nathan — disguised, with facial prosthetics and a bodysuit, as a socially inept, part-time arcade worker named Corey — performs a tightrope walk for a breast-cancer charity in order to make Corey look like a national hero. In the process, he finds a sweet, insecure woman on OkCupid and sets her up with “Corey” — Nathan in disguise. The episode’s climax comes after Nathan successfully completes the stunt, and Corey kisses his OkCupid date — but she doesn’t know that she’s kissing the real Corey, not Nathan in disguise.

In “Finding Frances,” a parallel plot emerges alongside Bill’s hunt for his lost love. Sensing that Bill, who never married or had children, needs practice talking to women, Nathan hires an escort named Maci. But Bill refuses: “You gotta know what you’re sticking it in,” he objects, even after Nathan insists their interaction wasn’t meant to be sexual. So Nathan himself spends time with Maci, and although he’s too shy to take things very far, there is an excruciating scene in an Arkansas hotel room in which he administers a series of intentionally awkward pecks to a visibly uncomfortable Maci.

The episode concludes with Bill and Nathan sitting outside Frances’s home. Bill wants to approach her front door with cameras in tow, but Nathan convinces him to at least call her first. He does, and over the course of a fifteen-minute conversation, he loses his nerve and he and Nathan end up driving away. But the conversation is agonizing for all the wrong reasons. “Who’s calling?” Frances asks when she picks up. “Well, I want you to guess,” Bill responds. “Doesn’t my voice sound familiar to you?” Her voice gets quiet. “No.”

Most of the articles I’ve read about “Finding Frances” call it a brilliant and moving meditation on loneliness and empathy, on our constant striving for connection — as if humoring the deranged quest of a creepy old man at the expense of the safety of a woman who didn’t ask for any of this is something to be applauded. Most of those articles were written by men, who must not have felt the same tightening of the chest I did as that phone call went on.

Nathan for You has always had a kind of alien interest in women, with Nathan’s pathetic social clumsiness acting as a shield to deflect criticism of his icky behavior onscreen. The male loner who doesn’t know how to talk to women has long been a stock character in comedy. But it’s an awkward time to be congratulating a comic for using the smokescreen of humor in order to humiliate and manipulate women. I’m not suggesting the real Nathan Fielder is some kind of predator. But it’s one thing when the punchline is that Nathan is a loser; it’s another when the punchline is that he’s such a loser he has to force women to kiss him.

Fielder is often congratulated for his commitment to blurring the line between his real self and his TV persona. It’s a risky gambit, and often, it pays off. But it also makes it harder to hold him accountable for any potential harm he may cause to the people who participate on the show. In a way, Nathan for You is a statement about the exploitative nature of the TV industry — how easy it is to treat people as less than human if you promise to put them on camera. But too often, the show replicates this very critique, and unintentionally highlights how hostile comedy can be, at its base, to women — how the so-called payoff to so many jokes is a woman’s very real discomfort.

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