Nathan For You so often concerns itself with questions of artificiality and constructed reality that it’s sometimes hard to remember that the show isn’t scripted. It’s a little odd to find episode five, “Smokers Allowed” meeting these themes head on and making what is usually the subtext text.
In what must be the best episode of season three so far, Nathan aims to help the struggling 1881 Club, a bar with plummeting profits due to the smoking ban. As always, Nathan has a way around minor inconveniences like the law and stages a free form play named ‘Smokers Allowed’ as an audience of two watches on in the corner of the bar. Using a loophole provided by theatre law, all patrons of the bar can smoke as they are all technically actors performing in the play.
This is one of the more out-and-out comedic premises Nathan has executed this season, ridiculously absurd and yet like most of his schemes strangely logical. Things take an even stranger turn when the two audience members actually claim to have enjoyed the ‘performance’. This prompts Nathan to search for some understanding of why this might be and the feedback he receives suggests he’s created some slice-of-life piece with real artistic merit.
Believing there’s greater potential for money from the play than a simple smokers bar, Nathan aims to recreate the bar’s events through transcribing all the dialogue from the night into a script that will then become a regular play. A nearby church is rented out and rehearsals take place as the cast perform (with stunning attention to detail) the exact events captured in that first performance. It’s a remarkably absurd sight, something in line with 2009’s Synecdoche, New York as real life literally becomes art. Much like the Dumb Starbucks episode of season 2 it’s not exactly clear how much Nathan buys into any artistic side what he’s doing as he simply allows the projections of other people to drive his idea forward.
Of course, the opening night of the play receives less than glowing feedback and it quickly becomes apparent that the bar owner Ellen won’t be taking the idea any further forward. The character of Nathan in the show so often strains for validation that it becomes painful for us and yet the concept of this episode allows him to construct his own reality to deal with his rejection. One scene has Nathan directing an actress, asking her to repeat ‘I love you’ to him so many times it goes from funny to cringe worthy and back to funny while the closing scene sees the actress playing Ellen step in and tell Nathan she loved the idea. It’s oddly touching and reminder that the show works best when it plays off of the vulnerability of our host, continuing the comedic premise that his entire motive behind helping businesses is just to make a human connection.
9/10 - It's no small feat for a half-hour comedy to be both hilarious and oddly profound yet Nathan for You succeeds brilliantly, taking its premise in an incredibly entertaining and innovative direction. This episode is a reminder of why the show is one of the most original and inventive on television at the moment, showing that the third season is keeping the standards high.