‘Nathan for You’ returns for third season
Matthew Munhall | Thursday, November 5, 2015
One of the most odd side-effects of social media is the number of brands that have assumed the casual, light-hearted voices of teenagers. Corporate Twitter accounts in 2015 are more likely to borrow slang and piggyback on memes than tweet anything overtly resembling advertising. The best (worst?) example is Denny’s, whose social media strategy roughly mimics a suburban teenager’s Tumblr. On Halloween this year, the diner chain’s account tweeted, “last minute costume idea: sexy pancake.” It received nearly 1,400 retweets. There’s something particularly insidious about this kind of marketing, especially its obscuration of the fact that these are large corporations trying to make money and not just another friend in your social media feed.
Perhaps the best satire of the absurdity of this kind of corporate marketing is Nathan Fielder’s genius Comedy Central series “Nathan for You.” It is a quasi-reality series, the basic premise of which is that Fielder, who claims to have graduated from “one of Canada’s top business school with really good grades,” offers his business expertise to help struggling small businesses. Expertise is an overstatement — the title sequence shows his college transcript, which is littered with mostly Bs and Cs.
Fielder did attend business school, but on “Nathan for You” he plays a vastly exaggerated version of himself who tries to convince business owners to go along with his terrible ideas. The show’s Nathan is nervous and awkward around other people, but deadly earnest about his ridiculously harebrained schemes. In the show’s third season, his business ideas have become even more absurd, with Nathan having become a master at devising intricate plots that exploit legal loopholes and seek attention by any means possible.
In “Electronics Store,” this season’s excellent premiere, Nathan devises a plan to help Speer’s Electronics, a small local store in Pasadena, compete with national chains. He proposes taking advantage of Best Buy’s aggressive price match policy. If Speer’s drops the price of their TVs to $1 for a short time, Nathan explains, they could buy up all of Best Buy’s stock for cheap and resell them. This initial pitch reveals the depths of Nathan’s delusions, as his voiceover explains how excited the business owners are about his ideas, even as their faces almost always reflect hesitance. Nonetheless, the owners ultimately agree to Nathan’s scenarios — after all, the presence of a camera crew seems to reinforce his authority as a business expert.
From there, Nathan goes to work spinning an ever-more complicated web. In “Electronics Store,” he designs and prints flyers announcing the $1 sale, and creates a complicated maze, involving a tiny door and an alligator, to prevent customers from actually reaching the room where these TVs are being sold. Nathan then hires people to try to purchase the TVs from Best Buy and threatens a class-action lawsuit when the employees refuse to honor the price match policy. To find a witness to strengthen his case, Nathan invents a fake dating show in order to meet a Best Buy employee and have her admit on camera that the store often refuses to honor its policy. The show is densely-packed for a half-hour comedy with evidence of how far Nathan is willing to go to ensure his plans succeed.
What is most brilliant about “Nathan for You” is how it pushes the idea of corporation as friend to its most absurd extreme. Nathan is almost always searching for connection beyond just business relationships; he constantly conflates the personal and the professional. At the beginning of “Electronics Store,” Nathan asks the electronics store’s owner if he’s in a relationship or has any other commitments. “I’m not in a relationship either,” Nathan reveals, “so we can both work on this full time.” Nathan’s desperation is frequently cringeworthy, as is his misguided notion of constantly involving his personal life in his business.
This season’s “Horseback Riding/Man Zone” arrives at a similar conclusion. After executing a plan to allow overweight people to ride horses, Nathan congratulates the stable’s owner and tells her, “This is how you will be remembered when you die.” The owner objects, saying she would rather be remembered for her world championships, her horses and dogs and her photography. Nathan is steadfast though: “I truly believe this and only this will be your legacy.” It’s an affirmation of, TV critic Erik Adams writes, “Nathan’s trust in the benevolence and virtue of brands and businesses.” In the age of the brand as hip social media friend, “Nathan for You” acknowledges just how ridiculous that idea can be.