Monday, May 20, 2013

Nathan For You: The Best Show You Aren't Watching

Even though this is probably not actually the case, I like to consider myself one of the biggest and earliest supporters of Louie.  When the show first premiered, it was met with mixed-to-positive reviews.  Some found it to be too scattered, some didn't like that episodes often had two different short stories that had nothing to do with one another, and others just didn't it find it particularly funny.  Meanwhile, I loved it straight from the beginning.  Although I can't imagine how or why anymore, the pilot made me cry three different times.  Maybe it had the advantage of airing at 11:00 during the summer -- a deadly combination given my habit of going insane at night and in the summer -- but there was something about its mixture of absurdist humor and melancholy mood that just worked for me.  Over the course of the next 12 weeks, I was constantly surprised by the show and its ability to rewrite my expectations of it.  By the time season 2 rolled around and it was getting near-universal acclaim, I couldn't help but think "that's what I've been trying to tell you all along!"

If there's any show that can follow in the footsteps of Louie, it's Nathan For You, Comedy Central's latest in a string of surprisingly great new programs (Key & Peele, Kroll Show, etc).  On the surface, Louie and Nathan For You don't seem very similar, but they share a few sensibilities and intellectual parallels.  Louie is certainly more of a singular vision, but Nathan For You is also the product of a comedian with a very unique and specific worldview.  Nathan For You's first season, which just ended a little over a month ago, wasn't highly watched or praised, much like Louie wasn't in its initial season, but I wouldn't be surprised if it blows up in its second season just like Louie did.  In fact, I haven't seen the first season of a comedy be so fully formed and capable of endlessly surprising me since Louie arrived three years ago.  Whether or not more people do tune in next year -- it was renewed for a second season two weeks ago -- the bottom line is that more people should be watching.

Basically, Nathan For You is a play on those "expert improvement" shows like Kitchen Nightmares or Sell This House, where an expert is brought in to help a lowly citizen improve their restaurant/house/self.  Equipped with a business degree from a Canadian community college where he earned C-pluses and B-minuses, Nathan Fielder provides his "expertise" in an effort to help out failing businesses.'s much more than that.  The advice that Nathan gives to these business owners is delightfully off-kilter, like in the season premiere when he suggested that an ice cream store introduce a new poop flavor in order to drum up controversy and get more customers.  If the show only had the gimmick of these wacky suggestions, it wouldn't be that impressive, but Nathan For You brilliantly builds outside of that concept and within in it.  Some of the funniest segments have little to do with helping out businesses, like the segment in which Nathan goes to many job interviews while wearing an earpiece and being fed lines by various people, including a 7 year old, comedian H. Jon Benjamin, and a turtle.  Nathan has a gift for being able to extend a bit and mine comedy from such strange, interesting, and unexpected avenues, which helps keep the laughs flowing in the standard advice segments.  For example, the season finale features a segment in which Nathan tries to help a private investigator get his first 5-star Yelp review.  Somehow, Nathan ends up challenging the private investigator to track him, and what follows is a series of comedic elevations that are too delightful to spoil (hint: an Asian body double comes into play).

Nathan For You doesn't have any ambitions of being as dark and depressing as Louie can be, but it still manages to occasionally be pretty touching amidst all of the hijinx.  Take, for instance, the gas station bit in the fourth episode, where Nathan suggests that the owner offer a rebate on gas prices.  The catch is that to retrieve the rebate, the customer must drive to the countryside and pick it up at the top of a mountain.  He assumes that most people won't want to go through the trouble and the owner will ultimately make more profit.  To Nathan's surprise, a few people take him up on his offer, and he has to string them along on this hike up the mountain. Although the whole thing is played for laughs, there is some genuine bonding that occurs during this trip, and as you learn more about these people, it's kind of heartwarming in a bizarre way.  The show also has a refreshing playfulness when it comes to formula, most notably in "The Claw of Shame," the penultimate and best episode of the season.  The entire episode is a parody of those ridiculous David Blaine stunt specials, where Nathan promises to get himself loose from a contraption before it pulls his pants down in front of a group of children, thus making him a registered sex offender forever.  Leading up to the big event, the episode follows Nathan as he goes to disapproving experts to prepare for his great escape.  It's all loopy stuff, but it's incredibly hilarious nonetheless.

I've seen some detractors complain about the show, wondering just how much of it all is staged.  To me, griping about how "real" the show is misses the point entirely.  There are some elements that are clearly staged, such as the conclusion of "The Claw of Shame," but it's always in a way that pushes the comedy forward.  Plus, if it is 90% staged instead of 30%, it's still marvelous that there are people who are even capable of thinking up and writing these twists and turns.  I hate cringe comedy, so I'd almost be relieved if I found out that the people to whom Nathan is offering his help are in on the bit, because that would alleviate some of the discomfort I feel for these people who frequently find him frustrating and perplexing.

Basically, there's no reason why you shouldn't watch Nathan For You.  The first season is over and I don't know how repeats work on Comedy Central, but I'm sure they're showing them every now and then.  Catch a repeat!  Download the episodes!  Watch a clip or two on YouTube!  Do what you can to seek out this brilliant show.  I laugh more at individual episodes than I've laughed at entire seasons of good comedies. This will most likely end up in my top 5 at the end of the year and trust me, you don't want to be behind the curve on this one.

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