'Nathan for You' Is a Perfect Indictment of Late Capitalism
Nathan Fielder's Comedy Central masterpiece is perfect for our times.
There has been a lot of talk these past few years of “Prestige Television.” Personally, I tend to scoff at this generally dumbshit term, which is all too often used interchangeably with “Expensive to Make Television” (looking at you, Westworld). But for one special show, I think the term applies—and that show is Nathan for You.
Now finished with its fourth season, Nathan for You is the most creative and intelligent comedy in years. If you haven’t seen it, what the fuck is wrong with you? The premise is as follows: Nathan graduated from business school with pretty OK grades and uses that knowledge to help business owners across America. His plans are always meandering and obtuse as hell, usually involving him downing a piping hot bowl of humiliation. The most mild of his schemes could still be justifiably called “batshit,” but there's a method to this young entrepreneur’s madness.
Nathan Fielder is a true entertainment treasure, his unbridled and unassuming genius continuing to amaze me season after season. He's the genuine goddamn article: Fielder's oddball nature isn’t affected in the least, and even though the show's premise is fairly straightforward, his interpretation of it is anything but. After dozens of adventures in Fielder’s particular brand of bumbleshit marketing, he surprises me with a startling regularity.
In later seasons, Nathan occasionally checks in with people he has worked with on past episodes; he reconnected with local cabbie “Andy” in the fourth season to discuss their plot against rideshare giant Uber. It’s no secret that Uber has been devastating to the local taxi industries, and a few years ago Nathan had an idea: encourage women to give birth in cabs, thus giving free positive press to the cab drivers and their industry as a whole. But dastardly assholes that they are, Uber swooped in and stole the idea.
As the two reunite, they decide that the game must be escalated. What follows is a rather Rube-Goldbergian series of schemes that involve scuba-diving burner phone purchases, Uber driver sleeper cells, a sham marriage in a Chinese restaurant, and a shitload of Lou Bega’s “Mambo #5”. Of course in the end the plot fails to destroy Uber, a corporation notoriously run by mondo dickheads that increasingly forces its way into our lives on a daily basis. But that’s the point.
The underlying theme of all Nathan for You episodes is the futility of resisting corporate capitalism in American society. Episode after episode, Nathan concocts truly insane plots in his noble attempts to help struggling small business owners. Independent coffee shops, contractors, and restaurants all turn to him for his unique font of marketing magic. None of them actually see results from the stunts—and this is by design. Yes, the plans Nathan lays out are absurd, but their hyperbole highlights the greater point: There is no winning against the corporate giants. None. At the end of the taxi episode, it is revealed that Andy has given up, and become an Uber driver. Uber won.
And it doesn’t stop at Uber. Nathan helps a local electronics store take on Best Buy (yes, at least one alligator is involved). He gets sued by Starbucks for rebranding a shop at “Dumb Starbucks”—complete with Dumb Venti’s, Dumb Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and Dumb Sarah Barailles CDs. And who can forget the local froyo shop he convinces to offer a “poop” flavored option. If I can be honest, Nathan has a particular knack for not only finding small business owners who are willing to go along with his insanity, but really fucking weird people, personally. It’s honestly one of the highlights of the whole concept.
At one point in the taxi driver vs. Uber episode, Nathan sits down to talk with lifetime cabbies to discuss the effect the rideshare company has had on their lives. Flush with billions in venture capital, Uber has been able to undercut the drivers in the room to the point of desperation. They describe defaulted mortgages, fear for their livelihood, and fear for the future. Eventually Uber will jack its prices up to account for this spend, but by then the cabs will be long gone from our streets. Nathan for You is a riotously funny show, but these little scenes are a glimpse into a deeper message that runs throughout—one that is decidedly less laughable.
At the end of that same episode, Nathan closes with the words “The free hand of the market had spoken. The enemy wasn’t Uber, the enemy was progress.” He’s right. Progress can be great, but this kind of progress brought us to where we are: a nation of exurbs built around a central locus of big chain corporations. Where once was main street, now lies the Walmart parking lot. City blocks once strewn with family-owned businesses are a depressingly predictable spread: CVS. 7-11. So many big banks. Starbucks. Fuck, I hate it.
Nathan for You is not entirely against capitalism (it frames the small business owners as protagonists in each episode), but it is against our capitalism. The unrestrained conglomerated monster that seeks to fuck us all into submission. It speaks to those who feel deeply uneasy with our new corporate reality. It seeks to cope with this world through humor, but it still screams out in desperation with us all.
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