Comedy Central’s semi-reality series Nathan For You, which returns for its third season tonight at 10pm EST, is a brilliant expose of capitalism taken to its logical conclusion. It’s also a show in which people eat poo flavored yogurt.
In the half-hour series, Fielder visits struggling small businesses and offers to help them attract new customers. These establishments, the people who run them, and all the patrons featured, are completely real. What they don’t know is that Fielder is in character the entire time as an awkward doofus, and all of his ideas are totally off the wall. That means he’ll propose ludicrous concepts, and we get to watch and cringe as his victims go along with it in order to be polite. That includes everything from selling alcohol to minors (…but only allowing them to take it out of the store when they turn 21) to offering incredibly cheap gas (…but only after customers drop off their rebate at the top of a mountain).
What you’ll notice about those examples is that as awful as they might be, and as much as they are clearly meant to mislead clients in order to take their money, they are both still technically legal. That phrase, “technically legal,” is what Nathan For You thrives on, and in that way the series is a reflection on capitalism pushed to its limits. Nathan’s character appears near incapable of picking up on social cues and understanding human emotion, and so he doesn’t see the issue with implementing any of these schemes to increase profits. If it helps the business, and the owner ends up better off by the end of the segment, then what’s the problem?
In a society in which we value results over the human toll of those results, Nathan’s attitude is inevitable. Corporations focus on the bottom line in a completely blunt fashion just as Nathan does, and so he is the American business model given a name and a face. We find ourselves wincing in pain as we feel for the people on screen, but then by the end of the half-hour, it’s often the case that Nathan’s proposal actually does bring in money. The fact that everything he pitches is perfectly allowable, and the fact that it usually does work surprisingly well, is the joke. A viewer constantly finds themselves asking, “How the hell is he getting away with this?”
Just take a look at the Dumb Starbucks episode, the most famous of the series which actually made international news. Nathan visits a struggling coffee shop that’s having trouble making a name for itself, and so, he decides, why not simply steal someone else’s name? Why not piggyback on their hard work? Surely that couldn’t be done legally, right? Well, actually, Nathan exploits parody law in order to use Starbucks’ brand logo; By putting “dumb” in front of the title, that qualifies the store as a parody.
Now, clearly any logical person sees that Dumb Starbucks isn’t a parody, and it’s instead a group of people swiping Starbucks’ brand recognition in order to make a profit. But due to a technicality, Nathan’s preposterous plan goes off without a hitch. By the end of the episode, Dumb Starbucks is shut down only because they didn’t bother getting the proper health permits, but had Nathan wanted to keep it going, he likely could have.
Indeed, Nathan himself recently said that the show was partially inspired by Wall Street and the 2008 financial crisis. He explained, “When you’re thinking about things just in terms of, ‘If it’s legal and it makes money, let’s do it’— in a lot of the culture now, or from what I gauge is the culture on Wall Street these days, [the mentality] is, the only way to make money is to find a loophole that’s technically legal but one step ahead of anything anyone else has thought about. They don’t really think about how it’s affecting the world or the moral or ethical issues with it—if it’s legal and it can make money.”
That’s exactly what Nathan For You is able to accomplish, forcing us to confront the natural consequences of a society in which the ends justify the means. A society in which “If it makes money, then it’s okay” is practically our national slogan. The product is something like Dumb Starbucks, or that store selling alcohol to minors, and as much as we laugh at the strange interactions and poop jokes, the real absurdity of Nathan For You is that he never does anything wrong. And there’s something profoundly messed up about that.