This week, Nathan for You concluded its fourth season with an unprecedented two-hour event entitled “Finding Frances.” I wanted to share some detailed (spoiler-y) thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole.
As we begin, it’s important to note that I am not just a Nathan for You fan; I’m a Nathan for You evangelist. Nathan Fielder’s show, which features the comedic actor suggesting and implementing ridiculous business ideas, has been a razor-sharp satire of reality TV, not to mention an occasionally thought-provoking look at the media and human nature. I not only appreciate how the show has exposed weaknesses in our institutions (as Nathan does this season when he smuggles in an elaborate chili-dispensing system into a hockey stadium with nothing more than a doctor’s note) but have also laughed heartily at the way Fielder revels in the awkwardness of humanity.
All that said, I found the fourth season overall to be a bit disappointing. Fielder’s ideas for improving businesses became increasingly outlandish, and his elaborate “side quests” often showed even less connection to the original mission than in seasons past. While Fielder has always used a local business’ problems as a jumping off point for crazier pursuits (see: Dumb Starbucks), the gulf felt especially pronounced this year — and even occasionally mean-spirited, as Fielder’s dragnet entangled everyone from a local councilman to Craigslist musicians.
When I watch Nathan For You, I want something that uncomfortably blurs the line between reality and fiction, and that makes me question the nature of my reality. The finale of season 3 broke my brain with its ambition and execution, and I was hoping for something similar to occur this season as well.
I got my wish, twice.
I always enjoy checking out Fielder’s appearances on late night television, as I find them delightfully awkward. His appearance on Kimmel (above) showed Fielder at his best, delivering a long, drawn out anecdote about a run-in with police. A few elements of the story seemed off to me (the photo of the suit seemed too perfect and also, why would someone carry their mom’s ashes in a baggy?), but hey, who doesn’t exaggerate things on late night television?
In season 4 episode 4, “The Anecdote,” Fielder reveals that the anecdote was an elaborate ruse. He had watched countless late night appearances and reverse-engineered the perfect late night anecdote, then used his extensive resources to make the anecdote’s events come true in real life. What’s great about Nathan for You is it forces us to retroactively reconsider everything that has occurred up until this point. Was Fielder pretending to bad at late night talk shows this entire time, as an elaborate set up for this episode? How much of his entire personality is a public performance? The mind reels at the possibilities.
“The Anecdote” is a brilliant examination of the performative nature of these talk shows, as well as one of the best instances of transmedia storytelling I can recall (Fielder went on to discuss the anecdote on Seth Meyers and Conan). It is, in other words, Nathan for You at its finest.
The second time the show really got to me was with its finale, “Finding Frances,” which I found to be painful, funny, and moving. Shot as a full-blown documentary, Fielder takes on the case of Bill Heath, who is regretful about Frances, an ex-girlfriend from decades ago that he believes he should have married. Nathan agrees to help track her down so that Bill can confess his love to her. Along the way, we learn that Bill’s intentions and character are not quite as sterling as we’d hope for a mission that is this ambitious.
For one of the first times ever, “Finding Frances” forces us to consider the challenge of making Nathan For You. Fielder stages elaborate schemes, such as claiming that he’s filming a sequel to the indie film Mud, or having a “57-year Reunion” at a local school, all to try and get some scraps of information about Bill’s mysterious long lost love. At one point, Fielder describes himself as wandering aimlessly through Arkansas, with hundreds of hours of footage, unsure if this would even turn into an actual episode. There’s lots of footage of Fielder falling for Maci, a local escort, who he’d originally hired to socialize (non-sexually) with Bill. It makes you wonder how many Nathan For You episodes we never actually get to see because, while expensive, they never amounted to any story worth telling.
I was profoundly uncomfortable for most of the episode, as Bill not only seemed like a compulsive liar intent on using Fielder’s resources for his own gain, but also a lecherous old man with no empathy. I questioned not only whether the already-creepy idea of tracking down someone from a past life and exposing her info to a national tv audience was worth doing, but whether this was the guy that one should do it for. In one scene, Fielder asks Bill to play act his hypothetical interactions with Frances, and Bill is creepy AF, touching the actress inappropriately and believing that he and Frances can pick up right where he left off. But through the exercise, Bill does eventually gain an understanding of why Frances left him, and even admits to cheating on her.
Eventually, they get a break in the case and discover that Frances is now married and living in Muskegon, Michigan. Fielder, Bill, and the whole camera crew drive out to the Frances’ house in Muskegon to talk to her. But after thousands of miles traveled, Bill is unable to get out of the car and go to her front door. Instead, he decides to call her from the car. As the conversation plays out, Bill realizes that Frances has moved on with her life. At first, she can’t even recognize his voice. She’s happily married with nine grandchildren. Meanwhile, Bill’s life as an actor and performer didn’t quite turn out like he’d hoped. And he realizes that he probably shouldn’t confront Frances in person after all. It is one of the most raw pieces of tape I’ve ever seen on Nathan for You, or probably anywhere.
What “Finding Frances” reveals is that everyone has a story. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, we are all the main character in the play of our lives. This episode pulls back the curtain on one such main character, Bill Heath, and invites us to examine his regret, his excitements, his desires, even as a 78-year old man.
“Finding Frances” ends with Fielder returning to Arkansas to meet up again with the escort Maci. The two share an impromptu moment of connection before the cameras turn off. Fielder seems to be trying to complete his character’s arc on the show — Bill regretted never marrying Frances because his family looked down on her, so Fielder is determined not to repeat the same mistakes with Maci, even as she has a profession that some might also look down upon.
In reality, we are probably watching a highly edited, controlled, purposeful interaction. In reality, Maci has signed a release form to appear in this scene, and was likely paid some kind of fee. In reality, Fielder may have no feelings for Maci whatsoever, and has scripted “Finding Frances” to end exactly where it would feel satisfying.
But we have no idea where reality ends and fiction begins with Nathan For You. And that’s what I love about it.