Saturday, July 12, 2014

Episode of the Week: Nathan For You - "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 2, Episode 2

Nathan For You is the most difficult viewing experience on television.  Usually when you describe something as "hard to get through," it's because the show is boring or bad, but Nathan For You is neither of those things.  It's just an incredibly uncomfortable show to watch.  I don't want to say it's because I'm a highly empathetic person -- because at times I can be the total opposite of that -- but something about this show taps into a deep well of empathy and secondhand embarrassment within me.  It's hard for me to not feel bad about for the people who have to go through the process of dealing with Nathan Fielder.  At least five times per episode, I have to cover my face as an attempt to remove myself from the situation, because I feel like I'm right there with those unwitting subjects.

"Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF," the second episode of Nathan For You's sophomore season, might be the show's most awkward episode to date.  It starts uncomfortable from the very first moment when Nathan meets his latest client, an owner of a souvenir store that's located in a less than ideal spot in Hollywood.  "Why are you wearing a touk?," Nathan asks the man, who doesn't know it's a Canadian term for the hat he's wearing, and the two of them then have a nervous, stilted conversation about the matter.  After that blundering bit of business, Nathan shares his characteristically convoluted plan to drive more business to the store: pretend to film a movie there and allow people to be extras in a scene where they buy an item and pay for it.  As is the nature of the show, Nathan goes all out by setting up legitimate equipment and hiring a Johnny Depp impersonator to play the lead.

One of the great joys of watching this show is the way Nathan is able to twist and turn a concept, adapting in a way that feels like improvisation.  When some extras voice misgivings about having to actually pay for the items they buy in the scene, Nathan brilliantly comes up with the idea of allowing them to meet "Johnny Depp" and have him autograph their items so that they will no longer want to return them.  Yet the episode unfolds even further beyond that, when it comes back from commercial break by having Nathan explain that what he did could be accused of being fraud, causing him to consult a former judge, who tells him that he has to make a real film in order to avoid consequences.  Nathan then does just that, hiring an actress to film a romance scene with him, bringing back the Johnny Depp impersonator to get more shots, and cutting together the footage of customers buying items, in order to try to make this film with a threadbare plot.

Because Nathan For You is a Russian nesting doll of comedy, it doesn't end there either.  When Nathan shows the film to the judge, he says it won't hold up in court unless it's "embraced by the showbiz community."  Thus, the East Los Angeles International Film Festival, Nathan's way of giving himself an award, is born.  Between all of this planning and plotting, "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF" finds little nuggets of funny as well.  For example, the moment when the guy Nathan asks to choose the winner of the festival, a B-level script supervisor, corrects Nathan on a credit from his resume, which leads to Nathan awkwardly announcing the correction to the rest of the crowd and asking for their applause.  There's also the choice of the camera cutting to the audience's uncomfortable reaction to the only competitor to Nathan's film, "Me Farting On Command," which is exactly what it sounds like.

Another of the qualities that makes the show genius is the way it manages to craft an unexpected narrative within episodes.  One of the running themes of Nathan For You is Fielder's attempts to find human connection through the work he does.  We see this time and time again in his requests to hang out with his clients outside of the show, which are usually rebuffed in hilarious fashion.  (Even last week, we saw a man hooked up to a lie detector tell Nathan he doesn't want to hang out with him later.  "True," the lie detector operator needlessly, but amusingly confirms.)  He does this in the most uncomfortable scene of "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF" too, when he meets up with Jessie, the actress he kissed in the film, to tell her that he has real feelings for her.  It's funny enough that he gets rejected, but the voiceover narration that follows is what's really incredible.  Nathan says that he's the one who feels bad for her, noting, "To share a kiss with another person and feel nothing is a horrible way to live."  Moments like that are what elevate the show and make it unlike any other comedy.

Nathan For You is many things, but one of the most fascinating things about the show is that it serves as a sort of anthropological study.  You learn so much about humanity through the way people react to Nathan's uncouth, oddball energy.  The best moments often don't come from the construction and execution of the comedic bits, but in the small reactions from the other side: the way that Jessie tilts her head and pauses while figuring out a way to let Nathan down softly, the redhead in the souvenir shop's hesitance when she sees that Nathan is actually swiping her credit card, Crayton Smith avoiding eye contact with the screen during "Me Farting On Command."  In my piece last year on the show, I mentioned that its realness doesn't matter, because even if it's completely fake, I would still marvel at how brilliantly written its little nuances are.  But it also doesn't matter because if it's fake, it still feels real.  That's what makes the show so difficult to sit through sometimes.  In the same way that awkward moments are unbearable in real life, they're unbearable in Nathan For You, which finds moments of reality in the midst of bizarre conceits.  It's a testament to the show's intelligence and hilarity that we're able to put up with the immense discomfort, and that uproarious brilliance is on full display in "Souvenir Shop / ELAIFF."

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