Dumb Capitalism: The Righteous Grifts of Nathan For You

Nathan for You | Comedy Central
Comedy Central

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that one need no longer be ashamed to scam. No matter how flagrant the deceit, how unbelievable it might seem that anyone could believe you, with a promise alluring enough—and marks desperate enough—you can lie your way to fame and fortune like never before. In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino offers what she calls “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” listing examples from Anna Delvey to Billy McFarlane to Elizabeth Holmes, with this criminal mosaic adding up to what Tolentino classifies as “the millennial-era understanding that the quickest way to win is to scam.”

Among Tolentino’s more systemic examples of the confidence game is Amazon, and she highlights the hyperbolic abuses committed along every level of the megacorporation—warehouse employees urinate in water bottles to avoid being penalized over lost productivity; warehouse managers keep ambulances idling outside to avoid installing air conditioning—all of it publicly known, all of it generally ignored as we focus on saving a little money and a little time. These days, as Tolentino suggests, “people are so busy just trying to get back to zero, or trying to build up a buffer against disaster” that living a life fully divorced of complicity in capitalist exploitation has become, for most Americans, a pipe dream.

In 2012, as the sun rose on Barack Obama’s second term, Amazon acquired robotics company Kiva Systems, kickstarting efforts to automate their warehouses. And a few months later, Comedy Central debuted a half-hour business-oriented docuseries hosted by an unassuming Canadian weirdo, a series that would ride the tidal wave of grifts straight into the pantheon of the decade’s strangest and most significant art. 

This…was Nathan for You.

The premise is simple: “My name is Nathan Fielder,” Nathan informs us at the top of each episode in his affectless nasal baritone, “and I graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades.” We see flashes of a transcript from British Columbia’s University of Victoria boasting a GPA of 3.3. “Now I’m using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world. This…is Nathan for You.”

In execution, however, the show thrived on complexity. Fielder—a former correspondent on the Canadian variety show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, where he honed his onscreen persona as an incredulous exaggeration of his deadpan off-camera self—set out to persuade down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs to participate in preposterous marketing schemes, constantly flirting with boundaries of the law and good taste in the interest of drawing customers. In early episodes, Nathan for You functioned as a basically standard satire of Kitchen Nightmares or Bar Rescue, shows in which a supposed expert assesses a failing business and proposes out-of-the-box solutions.

What sets Nathan’s approach apart is the elaborate counterintuition of his ideas; in perhaps the series’ most delightfully representative segment, Nathan persuades the owner of an independent gas station to advertise a price of $1.75 per gallon after rebate, testing what Nathan describes as “the world’s first perfect rebate.” In an endlessly escalating series of trials—all included in fine print to ensure nobody successfully claims their savings—Nathan drives the small group to a mountain 90 minutes outside LA, where they hike to the peak only to be subjected to a marathon of riddles ostensibly leading to a hidden dropbox. “I was stunned by the number of people that had given up their entire day for cheap gas,” Nathan remarks in voice-over as sweaty hikers overturn rocks in search of clues. “Was it the thrill of saving money, or were these people just completely insane?”

In each beautifully demented—and frequently botched—scheme, comedy is derived from customers’ outraged responses as their expectations of reward inevitably flip into on-camera frustration. Along the way, however, the most hysterical moments tend to come from the surreal confessions Nathan is able to elicit in most everyone he encounters, such as the gas station owner’s abrupt admission that he drinks young boys’ urine as an anxiety remedy. It’s all very funny, but as the first season unfolded in 2013, it was hard to see Nathan for You as much more than reheated Sacha Baron Cohen. 

Except, that is, for one episode that pushed this debut season in a surprising and unnerving direction. When Nathan volunteers to help a petting zoo, he proposes staging the ultimate viral video: a heroic pig saving a baby goat from drowning. After a shoot involving scuba divers, trained animal performers, and a translucent underwater track, Nathan anonymously uploads the video to YouTube, where it becomes an overnight sensation. Though Nathan expresses disbelief that the video could be viewed 3,000 times, that count is soon up to six digits as the video is picked up by outlets from Good Morning America to Fox & Friends, with even Brian Williams finally intoning, “We’re duty-bound to pass this on,” before sharing the theoretically heartwarming moment with the roughly eight million viewers of the NBC Nightly News.

The segment ends with Nathan persuading the petting zoo owner to disavow the video, and so the fraud went un-debunked as it drifted down the lazy river of virality. But once the con was unexpectedly revealed on an obscure new Comedy Central show, the few of us who happened to be watching live were treated to an experience disconcertingly like seeing ourselves exposed on-screen. For months we’d lived in a world in which a goat could be saved by a heroic pig. Where did this weirdo get off making us all unwitting participants in his long con?

Fielder has drawn criticism for both his techniques and his aims. It’s hard to deny that some early episodes flirt with abuse and exploitation—in one, Nathan works with a Greek pizza chef on a scheme that subjects his delivery driver to some questionably safe encounters; in another, on a mission to create the scariest haunted house ever, Nathan convinces a group of thrillseekers that they’ve been exposed to a horrific airborne disease.

While the latter example demonstrates outright cruelty the show wisely steered away from, the former highlights a more nagging criticism: that Fielder disproportionately exploits non-native English speakers in his pranks. It’s true that many of Nathan’s clients are immigrants, and though we seldom see him overtly condescend over cultural differences, the comic rhythm of virtually any segment relies on the dumbfounded stare he receives after pitching an outrageous plan. The language barrier unquestionably stacks the deck, ensuring polite confusion where native English speakers are more likely to push back. But while it may be an inadvertent byproduct of a questionably ethical dynamic, Nathan for You does highlight who, exactly, is threatened by the corporatization of America. The show functions as a vision of the classic American dream on its last legs, with industrious immigrants watching their livelihoods be strangled by megacorporations while their legal right to exist here is subject to constant debate.

More than focusing on any particular demographic, Fielder’s primary concern seems to be locating and engaging those people operating along the fringes of society. The show’s second season introduces recurring figure Bill Heath, an addled Bill Gates impersonator Nathan calls in periodically to impress people with incoherent ramblings about the size of ‘80s computers. Bill is only one point in the galaxy of what Joshua Alston in The AV Club once described as “people who look like the walking embodiment of post-traumatic stress,” uncanny figures who would seem at home alongside the grotesquerie of Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job. The two series do share a production company, but where Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim tend to offer these people up for detached observation, Fielder seems nominally more interested in what makes them tick—in Bill’s second appearance, Nathan spends an hour getting to know him, even as Bill leads the conversation towards the typically surreal topic of circumcision mishaps. 

These surprising grace notes, the type most prank shows would never find time for, remain the highlight of the series’ early days. For as juvenile as this first handful of episodes may be, there was an odd nerviness even then, a restless ambition in search of its purpose.

The second season picked up where the first left off. Now having mastered the show’s unique style of grift, Nathan uses the premiere to unleash one of his greatest hits as he helps a realtor certify her homes ghost-free via exorcism. In one of the most hysterical examples of Nathan’s ability to draw everyday people into his vortex of dream logic, the unassuming realtor soon casually mentions having been choked by a ghost in Switzerland, and later allows the exorcist to cleanse her of demonic forces, leaving her screaming and sobbing while a shellshocked Nathan takes pictures on his phone. 

The season remains largely focused on these mild social provocations—Nathan uses LA institution Pink’s Hot Dogs to test the limits of public generosity by allowing cutting for customers who can prove they’re in a hurry—but then, after a month of business as usual, came the episode in which everything changed.

This segment, the earliest example of a scheme that lasts the full half-hour, is entitled “Dumb Starbucks,” and it details Nathan’s use of parody law to open a facsimile of the coffee giant with every item “satirically” rebranded, including Dumb Iced Caramel Macchiatos available in Dumb Grande or Dumb Venti.

As the story of this odd storefront is picked up by the media, Nathan slips behind the curtain, and for days the entire country debates whether Dumb Starbucks is a work of legitimate street art, with some even speculating it could be the work of Banksy. Finally, with people now waiting hours in line to drink apparently awful coffee under the ostensible goal of protesting corporate monoliths, Nathan finally reveals himself in a press conference.

This narrative is not falsified; the incident was indeed a bona fide sensation, one that still lingered in recent memory when the show aired. For days there had been spirited debate over this bizarre force intruding on our reality, with customers and commenters alike struggling to reconcile it with typical frameworks of art and protest. As delightful as it had been to see Nathan ultimately revealed, it had been a relief, too. Finally everything made sense again.

“Dumb Starbucks” wasn’t just the moment Nathan Fielder crossed over to mainstream awareness, it was the first widespread confirmation of the project’s power. Nathan had manifested something far beyond the show’s usual scope, and he’d persuaded a shocking number of us to go along for the ride. If we’d been game for this one, how far could he go next time?

As the show’s cultural currency rose, so did public curiosity on the man behind the scams. It was clear his pathologically uncomfortable onscreen persona was largely a put-on—Fielder is a captivating performer but not a particularly convincing actor—and so the profiles that emerged in the wake of Dumb Starbucks were often devoted to this vexing question of person versus persona. In a 2017 Rolling Stone profile by Andy Greene, Fielder confirms he is dating someone but refuses to say anything more. “Awkward tension fills the table,” according to Greene, “though it seems to energize him.” Soon Fielder is interrogating Greene on why he seems uncomfortable.

Only further complicating the issue of who the “real” Nathan Fielder might be is the frequency with which Fielder’s public appearances are later revealed to be at least semi-artificial. During his Dumb Starbucks victory lap, Fielder came off as charming and relaxed, but the episode that aired months later reveals that in these appearances he was actually in character as “Nathan,” performing the required narrative beat that this overwhelming attention is going to his head.

An in-character press tour was by no means unfamiliar in 2014, with Sacha Baron Cohen having maintained his Borat guise during that film’s junket—Baron Cohen’s own Rolling Stone profile in 2006 carried the bragging rights of being “his only interview as himself”—but given the chimeric line between “Nathan” and Fielder, the overall effect is more confounding. More than Baron Cohen, this blurry sense of authenticity calls to mind Andy Kaufman, whose outrageous public antics often generated childlike glee—as in his renowned 1979 Carnegie Hall performance that climaxed with the audience whisked away via school bus to a surprise late-night milk and cookies party—even as his refusal to let the audience in on the joke led to often-maddening interviews. 

In her book-length profile of Kaufman, Was This Man a Genius?, reporter Julie Hecht claims to have experienced a genuine exchange, only for his friend Bob Zmuda to disabuse her. “Oh, you thought that was the real Andy?” the late comedian’s co-conspirator explains. “That’s just a character he does: Andy Kaufman.”

Is “Nathan” Fielder? It’s a question that may well be unanswerable to an observer—and, for all we know, may not be fully answerable to the man himself. In the series’ final stretch, Nathan asks a collaborator, “Can you figure out you?” and that question would come to loom large as the show’s notoriety and aspirations swelled.

In the fall of 2015, as Amazon introduced Alexa into our homes to eavesdrop on our lifestyles under the guise of improving them, Fielder premiered his third season, which would feature several more episode-length schemes, these ones expanded not to cover the unexpected twists of “Dumb Starbucks” but rather to encompass Nathan’s increasingly grandiose ambitions. 

In the season opener, Nathan collaborates with an electronics store to force a loophole in the Best Buy price match guarantee, offering $1 TVs that Nathan ensures will be impossible to purchase (by instituting a strict formal dress policy, then directing customers who return in tuxedos to the “Premium TV Section,” accessed by a 2-foot door and guarded on the other side by an alligator) while other confederates head to Best Buy in search of their advertised price match, intending to secure virtually-free TVs for Nathan’s client to resell.

Naturally, Best Buy refuses to honor the guarantee, leading Nathan to mount a second harebrained scheme: a class-action lawsuit against the retail giant. The remainder of the episode carries a tone of righteous outrage, and though it’s largely played for laughs—nobody, least of all Fielder, could believe he might win a legal battle with Best Buy—the exercise felt like a statement. “When big corporations try to mess with regular people like us,” Nathan declares, “we don’t have to take it lying down.” 

It rang out like a renewed sense of purpose for the show, and even as he abandons the lawsuit by episode’s end (unconvincingly citing a concern that his anger at Best Buy is turning him into the Worst Guy), there is a sense of genuine unrest at the core of the experiment. For all his bizarre methods, Nathan was again demonstrating what everyday people are willing to do to save a little money, and contrasting it with the indifference of a monolithic force that claims to care about its customers while amassing wealth and power at their expense.

The third season would maintain this sense of covert advocacy. At the midpoint, Nathan takes aim at health and wellness scams by creating The Movement, an exercise plan guaranteeing weight loss through moving household objects around, all in the ostensible hope of providing free labor to a struggling moving company. Nathan hires a bodybuilder named Jack to be the public face of The Movement and books him on morning shows to make the baldly ridiculous claim that he’s never set foot in a gym. Jack shows off a photo of an obese actor Nathan has hired as his lookalike, and livens up appearances with biographical factoids cooked up by a freelance ghostwriter, including a childhood friendship with Steve Jobs, and his passion for volunteering with “jungle children,” a nonsense term Jack repeats endlessly to the chipper credulity of the hosts.

You can’t help but laugh as this ridiculously muscular man flamboyantly hoists desk chairs and floor lamps on live TV, but the escalating shock is as much unnerving as delightful. Nathan is scamming in the most flagrant way possible. And the system is allowing—even encouraging—him to line his pockets by taking advantage of public desperation for that nouveau American dream: a foolproof shortcut to physical fitness. How is this possible? one can’t help thinking. This shouldn’t be allowed.

This episode marked the first time the general public was openly invited to volunteer as Nathan’s mark: shortly after the episode aired, paperback copies of The Movement: How I Got This Body By Never Going to the Gym in My Life went on sale, allowing readers—including yours truly—to hand over good money for the story of Jack’s life as ghostwritten by a genial oddball Nathan found on Craigslist. As Tolentino points out, it’s easy for an exposed scammer to “be reconfigured as a uniquely American folk hero” able to “make scamming seem simultaneously glorious and unsustainable.” It’s fun to harmlessly dip a toe into the surging tide of grift that drives so much of our lives these days. 

Alongside The Movement, Nathan’s efforts crossed into the real world in a far more pointed way with the creation of his activewear company, Summit Ice. Appalled to learn that his favorite jacket’s manufacturer, Taiga, has published a tribute to a notorious Holocaust denier in their catalog—and following a Skype call in which his father describes being rebuked for wearing Taiga to synagogue—Nathan decides to create his own clothing company explicitly devoted to Holocaust awareness. He anoints his brand with the slogan “Deny Nothing,” and designs print advertisements featuring an alluring model in Summit Ice gear next to four giant words: “Six million Jews died.”

The segment comes to a typically outrageous denouement as Nathan tries to install a concentration camp-themed display in an outdoor apparel shop. But the products that Nathan commissioned for Summit Ice were very real and not only did he soon make them available for purchase (including, again based on personal experience, the remarkably comfortable all-weather shell custom-designed to replace Nathan’s favorite Taiga item), after a year and a half he was able to donate $150,000 of proceeds to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center. In a follow-up segment that sees him make a gift of Summit Ice apparel to a concentration camp survivor, Nathan comments in voice-over that if his work “could help delay the next Holocaust by even a day, it would all be worth it.”

There’s a patina of comedy to Nathan’s hyperbolic language, but Summit Ice proved to be one of the few Nathan for You ventures to outlast the show, lingering—and, even to this day, growing—while a surge in mainstream violent hate emerged as one of the decade’s defining features. “Today is perhaps a good time to mention that Summit Ice is still going strong,” Fielder tweeted in 2018 following the Tree of Life shooting, the deadliest anti-semitic attack ever committed in the United States. It’s easy to go cross-eyed trying to parse the interlocking layers of irony and sincerity in such a solicitation. This notoriously unknowable comedian was now engaging in the sort of practice—hawking products in the wake of a tragedy with the tacit promise that purchasing these wares doubles as philanthropy—that he might once have mocked. It felt strange to see what began as a rote Comedy Central spoof evolve into such a complex and murky enterprise; but, as was becoming increasingly clear, it was a strange time in America.

For as pointed as the show’s viewpoint was becoming, though, there was an even stronger rising humanism. In the season’s penultimate episode, Nathan sets out to prove he’s likable by soliciting a new friend online. When he connects with Brendan, a recent LA transplant with a Harry Potter tattoo and the most permissive go-with-the-flow attitude imaginable, Nathan covertly collects his ostensible friend’s urine to test the rise in dopamine levels during their day together, hoping to scientifically prove he’s fun to be around. After the sort of contrived change of heart that often characterizes these more overdetermined non-business segments, Nathan admits his deceit. But rather than lose his temper, Brendan takes a moment to process, and then forgives Nathan. 

“You did did what you did,” Brendan tells this evidently sociopathic stranger. “That’s in the past, man. I’m fine. I wanna go do something today. Let’s go do something exciting.” 

As Len’s 1999 hit “Steal My Sunshine” surges on the soundtrack, it’s hard for at least this viewer to keep from choking up, as much now as in 2015. It can be a tough world, and Nathan found a lonely guy and made him happy for a little while. Is it bleak that this guy could be so lonely he’d be willing to put up with a stranger stealing his urine? Of course. But at least for today, Nathan gave him the gift of connection, no matter how self-evidently performative. 

At the time of the third season’s premiere in October 2015, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had still been largely treated as a punchline, but by December’s finale, the unlikely candidate was making the first of his soon-to-be trademark outrageously bigoted promises. Three days prior to the Nathan for You season finale, Trump’s impulsive call for “a total and complete shutdown” on amnesty for Muslim refugees, and his accompanying spike in popularity, had demonstrated that this campaign by a spoiled diletante might have tapped into something, triggering broad waves of concern over what exactly this unstable narcisist might be empowered to try next.

After the Dumb Starbucks affair, Nathan’s profile was high enough for a refrain to emerge. In January 2016, Mike Birbiglia tweeted, “Is Trump’s candidacy just a long episode of Nathan for You?” A few months later, comedian Cole Hersch tweeted, “Very curious to see how Nathan Fielder got this whole Trump campaign as far as he did.” 

The joke, which persists on Twitter to this day, speaks to the power of the Nathan for You concept, a longing for the catharsis of the Dumb Starbucks reveal. An apparently irreconcilable force had appeared in the world once, making us question our perceptions until Nathan revealed the game and set everything right. This campaign was as much a breach of reality as Dumb Starbucks, and now we longed for the turn. Where are you, Nathan? We learned our lesson. Fix this.

Since the pilot there had never been more than 14 months between new episodes of Nathan for You. But after the third season, Nathan was off the air for nearly two years. The midpoint of that hiatus, of course, saw the culmination of what Jia Tolentino labels “the final, definitive scam” of the decade: the election and inauguration of Donald Trump. Whether by believing the transparent grift or by underestimating the significance of his appeal, we had allowed the scammer to grab the wheel, and now the majority of Americans braced for whatever disaster might be in store.

Around the time of Trump’s inauguration, I noticed a trend in recent TV. The entertainment offered to us that fall seemed rooted in an Obama-era worldview that creators and executives presumed would transition seamlessly into at least one more term of the status quo. Now these shows seemed out of place, built for a world that didn’t exist. When my wife and I, craving comfort food as we adjusted to our new parenthood in a new nation, watched the premiere of Designated Survivor with its chest-thumping patriotic idealism and crowd-pleasing serialized espionage, the show seemed woefully out of step with the world it had been introduced into. A few months later, as America scrambled to reckon with a government now fully in control of craven scammers and their supporting villains, Designated Survivor quietly rebooted itself as a somber procedural devoted to the grave task of governance. Even then, the show sputtered to an ignominious end after two seasons on ABC and an abortive last gasp on Netflix; the atmosphere had shifted, and only the strongest respiratory systems could survive.

And then, finally, during a fall that saw the president attempt to shutter DACA, deny aid to Puerto Rico, and make his third attempt at an openly racist travel ban while Amazon kicked off an inflammatory bidding war between cities across America for the dubious privilege of becoming home to the behemoth’s second headquarters, a certain strange young man who graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades returned to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world. This, for the last time…was Nathan for You.

The fourth season kicked off in September 2017 with an hour-long retrospective hosted by an early Nathan associate, unctuous would-be TV personality Anthony Napoli. In the special, Nathan catches up with several of the show’s tangential figures, including the second season’s realtor whom Nathan now finds shopping a pilot presentation for her proposed Ghost Realtor reality series. This tactic had yielded success for another Nathan for You favorite, private investigator Brian Wolfe, who’d leveraged his appearances with Nathan into 26 episodes of Cry Wolfe for Investigation Discovery. Nathan had given these everyday people a taste of that other new American dream—fame and fortune simply for being yourself—and he’d left them craving more.

Towards the end of the special, after a check-in with Summit Ice, Nathan invites Napoli to affirm the company’s stance that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Napoli is bizarrely reluctant, insisting that he can’t confirm a number he’s only read in books, and he forcibly throws to a commercial break as Nathan attempts a follow-up. While the moment might have elicited shocked laughter during Napoli’s 2013 appearance, now it felt exhausting and defeating. God damn it, Anthony Napoli. Not you, too.

That exhaustion was a frequent undercurrent in the fourth season. Traditional schemes—such as Nathan’s efforts to help a shipping logistics company mail smoke detectors tax-free by rebranding them as musical instruments—lacked the bizarre but undeniable logic of the show’s best efforts; the formula by now felt so familiar that each of Nathan’s new brainstorms may as well have ended with, And you can pretty much guess where this is headed. Pointing out the flaws in the system and the desperation churned up in the wake just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. Those flaws had been thoroughly exposed, and the results weren’t nearly as delightful as Nathan’s best pranks.

Amongst these listless episodes, however, were the few shockingly urgent ones. The most alarming example, “Andy vs. Uber,” is likely Nathan’s most outright aggressive effort—believing that one of his season two schemes (cater to the extremely pregnant in the hopes of the publicity boost of a roadside delivery) has been infringed on by Uber’s new policy of gifting onesies to babies born during a ride, Nathan and his prior client Andy begin assembling a sleeper cell of disgruntled cabbies capable of infiltrating the Uber network and unleashing chaos.

The onesies are a MacGuffin, with the true focus of the episode being the genuine harm done to cab drivers by the renegade “disruptors” (companies, as Jia Tolentino writes, whose “biggest breakthroughs have been successfully monetizing the unyielding stresses of late capitalism”), with one cabbie telling Nathan, “I cannot pay the mortgage, I cannot buy good shoes for my children.” But by the time Nathan—decked out in full Eyes Wide Shut regalia—is recording his Anonymous-style threat, there’s a genuine eeriness to the effort. Nathan, of course, abandons the project before it takes effect, but the episode nevertheless functions as a step-by-step demonstration of how to create a domestic terror cell within the lax oversight of predatory startups. 

The episode titled “The Anecdote,” meanwhile, has the feeling of a victory lap as Nathan offers his ultimate demonstration of just how elaborately he can turn reality into a Rube Goldberg machine. Preparing for an upcoming Jimmy Kimmel appearance, Nathan decides to engineer the greatest talk show story of all time:

If I was flying to an out-of-town wedding, and I accidentally grabbed the wrong suitcase at the airport, I could tell a funny tale about being forced to wear the oversized suit of the stranger. And then, if I discovered a small baggie containing a chalky substance in the pocket moments before a cop pulled me over for speeding, it would add a heavy dose of suspense. And finally, if the owner of the suit told me that the substance in the baggie was actually his mother’s ashes, it would be a twist ending so unexpected that the audience at Jimmy Kimmel Live would shower me with laughter and applause unlike anything I’d experienced before.

And then, of course, Nathan engineers a domino-perfect chain of events to make the story technically come true, including haranguing a couple until they invite him to their wedding, and using Craigslist to solicit large men in possession of both a suit and at least some maternal ashes. In the third of a loose trilogy with “Petting Zoo” and “Dumb Starbucks,” Nathan once again introduced something seemingly innocuous into the world—this time in the most mundane form possible—only to later spend an episode pulling back the curtain to reveal the massive operation behind it. Even something as pedestrian as a good anecdote can be twisted into a pretzel of lies and truth if you have enough willpower (and an estimated $350,000).

Building even more artifice into the equation is the fact that the Kimmel appearance was not just a lie, but also a performance in the grand metanarrative of Nathan for You: that Nathan is so desperately lonely, he’ll do anything for approval and connection, including throwing money at a facsimile until it feels real. By now, this was the closest thing Nathan for You had to a story arc. And it’s this arc that would be paid off in the shocking and extraordinary series finale: the feature-length documentary “Finding Frances.”

We find Nathan in his production office, where he has recently been visited several times by Bill Heath, season two’s addled Bill Gates impersonator. Bill, we learn, has been ruminating on his teenage sweetheart Frances, whom he left behind in Arkansas to pursue his Hollywood dreams and has by now hopelessly lost touch with. Picking up the hint, Nathan offers to use the show’s resources to help this strange old man finally locate the lost love of his life.

There are stretches of “Finding Frances,” which aired in a two-hour block in November 2017, that function as a typical Nathan for You episode—highlights include Bill and Nathan staging a reunion of Frances’ high school class in hopes of gathering intel, which climaxes with Bill’s hat-and-cane performance of the (very real) town anthem “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” But the episode hinges on two moments of startling emotion, one affecting for its absolute realism, the other for its densely interlocking layers of artifice. And in the contrast between these extremes, “Finding Frances” becomes an exploration of the ultimate question behind this bizarre half-decade’s experiment: what exactly is the difference between honesty and deceit if the results are indistinguishable?

The culmination of “Finding Frances,” and so the culmination of Nathan for You, sees Nathan and Bill—who by now has grown somewhat unnervingly fixated on Frances’ long-ago promise to “love me to her grave”—travel to Frances’ home in Michigan. Arriving at her driveway, Bill calls Frances to prepare her for the surprise visit, but once he hears her voice at last, Bill elects to talk with her from the car. For over 15 minutes, he learns about Frances’ life and tells her about his, only glancingly bringing up his longtime fixation (“I shoulda married you—maybe! You know how it is!”) and, after gauging her friendly but nonplussed reaction to his spasms of emotion, he sighs, “the years go by,” before announcing that the conversation has “cheered me up so” and saying goodbye. Nathan is shocked that Bill doesn’t want to see Frances in person, but the old man insists, “I talked to her. That’s enough.”

The episode’s secondary thread concerns Nathan’s burgeoning relationship with an escort named Maci. Nathan hires Maci to give Bill practice talking to women, but after Bill refuses the offer, Nathan meets with her and the two strike up a connection, transactional as it may be. As they spend more time together (at Nathan’s expense), he admits that while Maci forces him to question the boundaries between his show and his life, she puts him at ease, and the two begin experimenting with more physical affection, something that by now we know Nathan longs for.

Bill’s phone call with Frances seems entirely unstaged, and it’s breathtaking TV, a moment of raw realism that could only be achieved through the tower of deceit slowly built by the series. Nathan’s encounters with Maci, meanwhile, are charming and tender, even as the viewer is always aware of the falseness of their situation: here are two performers, both trained to approximate sincerity, working at cross-purposes with the friction between their goals producing a uniquely nervy romcom.

And yet we can never know how full a picture we’re getting in these two improbably satisfying narratives. We can never know for sure how much contrivance was involved with Bill’s call to Frances, nor can we ever know for sure that Maci’s amusement with Nathan is false. We know how it feels as a viewer, but we can’t possibly ascertain how much our perspective is being limited. This is the heart of any successful hoodwink—a charming and assured operative invites us to ignore the mechanisms and enjoy the satisfaction, hollow as it may be. Sometimes you need that comfort to distract from the mounting inescapability of what Jia Tolentino terms the modern “dead-end sense of [one’s] own ethical brokenness.”

But with Nathan behind it, a grift is reconfigured as a gift. It’s an idea that the show planted its flag on as early as the falsified hero pig video: “For a moment I felt bad because it wasn’t real,” Nathan concludes in that earliest expansion of his show’s ambitions, “but then I realized that that didn’t matter.” In a sentiment that’s as true of the petting zoo video as it is of the urine theft, Bill’s investigation, and so many of his other schemes, Nathan argues that “in these cynical times, people are desperate for something to believe in. And I gave people a reminder that it’s OK just to believe.” 

Of course, Nathan for You never argues against skepticism—if anything, the series provides dozens of hours of training in how to parse reality from artifice while gauging the costs and benefits of each. Rather than asking the audience to ignore life’s toughest questions, Nathan for You confronts them with an endless barrage of the same—in a 2017 New Yorker review of “Finding Frances” (which he calls “a perfect imitation of an imitation of life”), famed documentarian Erroll Morris quickly lapses into cataloguing the project’s unanswerable provocations: “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” And on and on. It’s questions all the way down.

For four unparalleled seasons Nathan—and Fielder alongside him—dropped viewers into the deep end of existential uncertainty, and then invited us to try and keep our heads above water while drawing personal conclusions on what matters, and how much, and what we might do with this new awareness of the falseness undergirding the “real.” These efforts may have triggered new skepticism of viral videos and image-controlled celebrity anecdotes, but by debunking the harmless, Nathan for You provides training for debunking the harmful. It’s practice we’ll need if we’re going to keep the world’s grifters in check across the next decade. And this public service, this reminder, this provocation, this overflowing fountain of dumb joy, all this…was Nathan for us.