Nathan For You Blurs Reality TV and Reality Itself

Nathan For You, Nathan Fielder’s terrific mock business reality show just aired its season 4 finale last week. “Finding Frances” focuses on washed-up Bill Gates impersonator Bill Heath’s regrets over a lost romance and the search for a woman he hasn’t seen since the late 50s. It’s illuminating, hilarious and compellingly human, and it’s perhaps the best episode of Nathan For You yet despite the fact that the laughs are few and far between.

The series as a whole is about blending and blurring lines between reality and reality TV and mining the insanity to be found in that gray area. The things Americans will do in front of a camera after decades of being acculturated to the reflective media-entertainment complex is incredible. Bill Heath’s profoundly uninformed Bill Gates impersonation (he’s more like an impersonator impersonator) from an earlier season was an indelible turn in Nathan For You and yet more evidence of what an American will do to get on camera.

Bill Heath was uniquely strange and hilarious, so it was a delight to see the eccentric man return to the series. Expectations were for more geriatric strangeness from the man, and while we got a lot of that (cf. his careful recording of loan offers and his certitude of a Trump victory in fall of 2016), “Finding Frances,” manages to do something far more incredible: it accesses real, true humanity in the cleft between reality and “reality” that the show traffics in, and explore the humanity of both Bill and Nathan.

Bill himself is both a mystery and eminently readable as a person and a character. After contributing to DVD commentary of Season 2, Bill begins hanging out at the studio’s office listlessly. He lives in Hollywood and appears to be a familiar image of American culture: that of the never-made-it actor.  Part and parcel of this image are Bill’s regrets: he had abandoned the titular Frances in the 50s to pursue his career in Hollywood. Bill regrets leaving her tremendously, and admits he’s attached himself to the hope of this lost romance. An elderly man who never fulfilled his dreams, Bill may be realizing he left behind something meaningful.

The journey Nathan and Bill go on to find her is tremendous. They travel to Little Rock and experience a series of classically Nathan For You misadventures, such as organizing a casting call for a fake movie to get access to Frances’s high school’s year books then reintroducing an incompetent age progression expert to modify the photos. (The man elects to bring two identical printers from LA in a bit of absurd hilarity.)

However, Nathan (the character) begins to scratch beneath the surface slightly when he confronts Bill over his claim that he was a professional Bill Gates impersonator and questions the relationship that he had with Frances. This scene, while remarkably funny, also marks the transition to a more serious episode that explores regret and signals an elision of the character Nathan with the real person.

Nathan organizes a fake high school reunion and plasters the age-progressed photos around the town, but to no avail. Then, Bill uncovers old written correspondence from Frances herself. The letters reveal that Bill’s idealistic love wasn’t quite so pure (despite Frances’s constant insistence on her own purity, for his sake). Bill was a philanderer, and he abandoned her. Nonetheless, Nathan presses on and continues concocting absurd situations to put Bill into.

When Nathan decides to set Bill up with an escort to hone his communication skills, Bill refuses to go and Nathan goes on the date instead. On their date, Nathan acknowledges the existence of the show to her and even shows her an episode on his laptop (she thinks it’s “mean funny”). The barrier between Nathan the character and the person is weakening. He’s acknowledged the show is a comedy, yet continues on filming and the viewer is still party to it all. It’s no longer clear if Nathan’s awkwardness is an act or just the natural awkwardness of anyone meeting an escort for the first time.

In a strange and surreal detour, Nathan books several more dates with her, that culminate in him dancing for her in a hotel room and sharing a series of too-long kisses–all for the cameras. Between their dates is a trenchant scene with Bill at a bar where Nathan narrates that he wonders if Bill is “a bored old man,” or if these are the regrets of a person who prioritized career and became “desperate for any human connection,” as the camera focuses on Nathan. The dates are surreal–the cameras watch it all–yet they feel real. Maci seems earnest, and so does Nathan. They tell each other they “like” each other. The cameras are watching. Nathan seems as desperate as Bill is for the human connection.

The episode refocuses on the Frances narrative and a new breakthrough: Nathan has found Frances’s parents gravestone, and they find the obituary to determine where she now lives. Through the magic of Facebook, Frances is found. But she has a husband. Bill is displeased, and the earlier unpleasantness hinted at comes to the forefront.

Bill fumes over the husband, and Nathan (the person, I believe) is so taken aback he brings in an actor to roleplay the reunion. Bill is desperate and terrible to her on the stage. Eventually Bill and the actor playing Frances switch roles and give Bill some much-needed insight into her perspective and his own behavior. While the whole journey may have just been that of a “bored man,” the desperation and anger Bill shows in these scenes reveal that there’s real regret underneath it all fueling those real reactions.

Satisfied Bill has regained his balance, Nathan and Bill set out to surprise her at her home in Michigan. The tension is high, but masterfully defused by a short aside of the two watching the Hillary-Trump debates–perhaps the first recorded evidence of those debates defusing tension, not adding to it. (Bill ridiculously claims that Trump’s middle initial is H., then goes on to assert that polls don’t matter and only election day does in a eerie moment of premonition.)

Finally, the big moment arrives. Bill and Nathan drive out to Frances’s house. Bill seems genuinely nervous to meet her, but he also knows it’s a production, a moment to be filmed and digested by the viewer. Despite Nathan suggesting Bill go up to her door alone, without cameras, Bill insists he bring the cameras. They compromise with Bill calling her, rather than arriving at her door unannounced with cameras and a hot-tempered ex-lover. Bill is nervous and cagey on the phone call. Nathan eggs him on–not in a “mean” way, as Maci noted his earlier episodes might have done, but earnestly. The phone call reveals that Frances had lived a mostly normal life after Bill: two marriages and grandchildren. Bill chooses not to tell her he’s outside her house. He seems to have grown through the experience of searching for her. After the phone call ends, Bill asks, “how do you feel?” It strikes me as a question with two meanings: it’s like a “did you get that?”–Bill is still aware he’s being filmed, he’s still aware of the conceit of the whole situation. But it’s also a nervous, human moment. He doesn’t want to admit he’s nervous and he’s failed in his goal. Bill decides not to go inside. It’s a failure with personal growth.

Bill and Nathan have both become more human to the viewer. They’re both still aware of the cameras, but both are less performative. And then the viewer is reminded again that we’re watching a comedy: in the most masterfully absurd moment of the whole series, Bill becomes strangely determined to destroy a bee that has found its way into their hotel room. I’m not sure if the scene is hilarious because of the bathetic nature of it or if it’s just a truly hilarious scene, but I hadn’t laughed that hard in a while.

The episode closes with Bill giving Nathan a gift and soliciting the actor who played Frances’s phone number. Life goes on. Meanwhile, Nathan returns to Arkansas to meet with Maci once again. The scene is so awkwardly human it hurts. In a final moment of expectation-defiance, Maci asks if Nathan will turn off the cameras. “It’s kind of weird having cameras around, right?” she says. “Does [turning the cameras off] defeat the purpose… you’re filming something, that’s kind of the purpose, right?” She cuts to the core of the tension between reality and the packaged, edited reality we’re watching. The boundary is never so thin as it is in that moment. Nathan waffles a bit, not satisfying the viewer’s wish to cut to black in that moment. Instead he tells her he brought a drone and the final shot is a pre-planned zoom-out.

The episode was startling. It was stellar. I never expected to be so touched, so fascinated by an episode of reality TV. The genre has truly been proved not to be the insipid trash it’s frequently characterized (and represented) as. I was so moved by the episode I checked in on some discussion about it around the web, and I was touched to find this video of the live airing of the episode in LA:

The shrieking support Bill gets nearly brought a tear to my eye. Despite the fact that Bill never manages to see Frances face-to-face, Nathan For You brought him both closure on a lost romance, and the fame he gave that love up to seek. It’s a touchingly, achingly American moment. It’s reality TV made real.