Reality TV is generally associated with larger than life characters, contrived situations and a sense of relatability, despite the essentially unreal scenarios. Comedy Central's breakthrough series, "Nathan For You," generally adheres to these conventions but goes far beyond what we've come to expect from reality TV.

The nature of reality TV

Iterations of reality TV have existed in various forms since the initial post-war television boom, but these were difficult to delineate from documentaries until the 1990s when "The Real World," "Survivor" and "Big Brother" truly began the phenomenon.

Production companies realized the potential that reality TV held; it's quick and easy to make as there's no need for elaborate stage design, scripts or actor's wages. Early forms of reality TV played on the idea of social experimentation or competition (e.g. "American Idol," "Dancing with the Stars"), but as its popularity has grown there has become even less need to justify the premise beyond "watch these people" (e.g. "Keeping up with the Kardashians," "Jersey Shore"). These shows now boast some of their network's highest ratings and occupy the most coveted primetime slots.

'Nathan For You'

Despite the current 'golden age of television' we're enjoying, it's still often reality TV that ends up dictating the zeitgeist.

Nathan Fielder knows this and has been able to tap into it as his chosen comedy vehicle. In the show, Nathan plays a loosely fictionalised version of himself and offers business advice and ideas to struggling small businesses in the greater Los Angeles area. The advice is always ridiculous, but there's usually a subtle logic to the schemes that mean its potential for success can still be imagined.

And some of the ideas do work (incredibly successfully in "Dumb Starbucks") and several have received extensive news coverage (e.g. "Petting Zoo Hero'," "The Movement"), despite often being completely staged.

What sets it apart from the crowd

The sheer creativity and ingenuity of these plans would be enough to make an interesting show, but it is Nathan himself and his interactions with the revolving door of bizarre characters he meets that push "Nathan For You" into the 'brilliant' category (one of whom even got his own spin-off reality show, "Cry Wolfe").

Over the show's four seasons the 'character' of Nathan has undergone profound (and organic) personal development. He remains socially awkward almost constantly, but his level of self-awareness is dramatically increased compared to the first season.

Despite peaks and troughs in his own confidence, Nathan manages to forge connections with the business owners he deals with, often finding insecurities in himself and others, and in these moments there are glimpses of genuine pathos. Many of the people Nathan meets are desperate (the fact that they go along with his outlandish ideas are testament to this), but, unlike a lot of reality TV, this is never played for cruel laughs or overblown pity, but authentic emotional moments that show what reality TV can achieve when done well.

Distorting reality (TV)

Reality TV has been used as a prism for satire for as long as the format has existed, from "Ali G In Da House," to "The Truman Show" through to the criminally underrated Unreal. "Nathan For You," however, has managed to intertwine a quick-witted satire of 21st century commercialism with a unique storytelling style that is both unique and honestly touching. That it is also absolutely hilarious is just the icing on the cake.