Could an episode of The Bachelor be considered a documentary? The short answer is no. Reality television, in reality, is heavily scripted. Producers feed Snookie lines, writers give the hot, young singles on Love Island dramatic plot lines to carry out, and even the couples on House Hunters have picked out their dream home before a single camera rolls. Most people hold documentaries to a higher ethical standard than your typical reality TV show. We expect Jersey Shore to entertain us. We expect documentaries to tell the truth.
In 2013, Nathan Fielder premiered his reality show, Nathan For You, on Comedy Central. The premise was simple: Nathan would use his business degree to help struggling businesses succeed by implementing outside-the-box marketing schemes. He presents absurd ideas, ranging from poop flavored frozen yogurt to viral animal rescue videos. Fielder plays a caricature of himself, often coming across as painfully awkward and slightly desperate for companionship. Much of the show’s humor comes from the public’s reaction to the straightforward and cringe-worthy way “Nathan” communicates. Even though the character he plays is fake, Fielder wears his heart on his sleeve. Consequently, some of the show’s best moments come from the unlikely connections he makes with the cast of real-life characters that get wrapped up in his schemes.
One of the most memorable of those characters is a Bill Gates impersonator named Bill Heath, who first appears in the Season 2 episode “Souvinir Shop / E.L.A.I.F.F.”
The show’s 90-minute final episode, “Finding Frances” (originally aired in November 2017 as part of Season 4), reveals that Bill periodically visits the show’s production office to hang out, deliver gifts, and speak to anyone who will listen about his long lost love, a woman named Frances. Bill’s story, filled with loneliness and regret, sparks Nathan’s interest, and he sets out to help the 73-year-old find the old flame of his youth.
In 2019, more than a year since its broadcast on Comedy Central, Fielder screened “Finding Frances” at the True/False Documentary Film Festival. But how did the show break the barriers of reality TV and emerge as a “respectable” documentary film that it would be programmed at such a prestigious event for nonfiction cinema?
The key lies in control. Usually, Fielder strictly plans out every aspect of his show. He approaches a business owner in character, pitches his ridiculous ideas to improve sales, and executes the plot with determination. “Finding Frances” abandons that structure. Nathan and Bill pack up and head to Arkansas, the last place where Bill and Frances were together, with no struggling companies in sight. Their only goal is to find Frances, so Fielder turns over his authority to Bill and his memories.
While Nathan doesn’t completely desert his schemes, you can sense him searching for the next step in the plan. Age progressions, hypnotism, and a staged high school reunion all lead to dead ends. At one point, in voiceover, Nathan admits his growing concern with where this story was going.
“I couldn’t tell if the search for Frances would amount to anything,” he says. “I was starting to wonder if Bill was just a bored old man, looking for an adventure to keep him busy or maybe when you prioritize your career for too long, you just become desperate for any kind of human connection.”
Bill left Frances when they were both young to pursue a career in Los Angeles. He claims that leaving her was the biggest regret of his life. As you watch Nathan grasp at any outlandish idea to reunite Bill with the love of his life, you can’t help but compare the two men. Fielder left his own home in Canada to chase his comedy career, and his character struggles with relationships throughout all four seasons of Nathan For You.
While the audience understands that Nathan is a character, the line blurs where the TV Nathan ends and the real Nathan Fielder begins. As he finds companionship in the form of an escort (who was originally hired to teach Bill to be more comfortable around women), it’s hard to see much of a difference between the two Nathans at all. This is how Nathan For You moves into documentary territory. Fielder pushes the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking until it lines up with the struggles of his own real life as a man portraying a version of himself for cameras.
When Nathan and Bill finally find their way to the end of Frances’s driveway, Nathan insists that Bill doesn’t bring the cameras with him at first to meet his long lost love. Missing that reunion shot would be unthinkable to most filmmakers, but it shows how emotionally invested Fielder has become with Bill’s journey. Bill, on the other hand, isn’t quite ready to get rid of his reality TV armor and instead makes a phone call to Frances from inside the car. They catch up, he learns about how happy she is with her husband and grandchildren, and Bill can at last move on from his life of wondering what could have been. In the driver’s seat, it’s finally clear that we’re watching the real Nathan Fielder as he offers words of comfort to a processing old man.
“Finding Frances” reflects on regret, loneliness, and the very human desire to connect with people. From an elderly man stuck in his memories to a workaholic lost in his own character, we all want to be satisfied with our lives, our loves, and our own reality.