In the third episode of Showtime’s strange, riveting, and often hilarious new scripted series The Curse, the married co-hosts of an in-development reality show watch a focus group respond to the pilot.. “I like the lady,” says one woman. “I do wish that he had a sense of humor or a personality.” “There’s zero sexual tension,” another participant complains. The final verdict: “There was just something off about him. Like I said, either be hot or funny. He wasn’t either to me.”
The character in question, Asher Siegel, is played by co-creator Nathan Fielder, of the high-concept reality comedies The Rehearsal and Nathan for You. And the persona he adopts here shares much with the fictionalized versions of himself that he’s portrayed in those series: awkward, pushy, disconcertingly affectless. Genre-wise, The Curse, which streams Nov. 10 on Paramount+ with Showtime before premiering Nov. 12 on Showtime, is a different kind of show; what begins as a scripted satire of HGTV’s ample real-estate porn builds tension until it becomes, of all things, a Hitchcockian psychological thriller. Fielder’s inscrutable presence is as pivotal to building suspense as it was in setting the offbeat tone for his past projects.
Asher and his wife of one year, Whitney (Emma Stone), have moved to the small, economically depressed New Mexico city of Española on a mission to reinvigorate the community by building environmentally friendly houses. Aware that these expensive dwellings are bound to displace low-income residents, the socially conscious couple plan to offset the inevitable gentrification by attracting new businesses, including a high-end coffee chain and a designer denim boutique, that will create jobs for un employed Españolans. They’re also, of course, hoping to become the next
Chip and Joanna Gaines.
The driving force behind this dream is Whitney, a rich girl rebelling against—without necessarily achieving financial independence from—slumlord parents. Stone’s inherent warmth suffuses her performance, making Whitney come across, at first, as a humane corrective to the seem ingly robotic Asher. Yet as the 10-episode series unfolds, her desperation to be seen as not just a good person, but also an authentic member of a discrete community—like her Jewish husband and Native American friend Cara (Nizhonniya Austin)—takes on an increasingly sinister cast.
A more initially alarming character is Asher’s old friend Dougie (co-creator Benny Safdie, of the brother duo behind Uncut Gems and Good Time), the sketchy producer helming the HGTV show, whose abysmal working title is Fliplanthropy. When we meet Dougie, he’s inducing tears of gratitude in a scene in which the Siegels secure a barista job for the adult son of a cancer-stricken woman, by spraying water and menthol in the mother’s face. Later, in a parking lot, one of Dougie’s contrivances backfires. A little girl (Hikmah Warsame) is selling cans of soda, and Dougie goads Asher into buying one on camera. Asher only has a $100 bill, so he gives it to her for the sake of the shot and then, in the kind of tone-deaf faux pas that makes Whitney apopleptic, takes it back. “I curse you,” the child proclaims.
Chaos reigns in the aftermath of that portentous encounter, but it’s hard to blame the words of a wronged elementary schooler—or even Asher for provoking her—when the Siegels, Dougie, and the whole Fliplanthropy project are sowing as much toxicity as they reap. Fielder’s eternal preoccupation is the way people manipulate their environments and each other, particularly through reality TV, where "reality" is so vulnerable to meddling. Here, he applies that scrutiny to a couple who yearn to be the heroes of a story in which they’re clearly self-interested interlopers, as well as a producer who will cross any line of decency if it helps the show get picked up.
While The Curse is sure to elicit nervous giggles—the mismatch between Fielder’s stiffness and Stone’s ease makes for great physical comedy—it more often conjures a state of paranoia. At first, Whitney and Asher worry about how Dougie is depicting them. But as the season progresses, and locals from poor, immigrant, and Indigenous communities rightfully begin to distrust their motives, the Siegels redirect that suspicion onto everyone around them. Does the local media have it out for them? Is the crew whispering about them? “Is she making fun of me?” Whitney demands when Cara, recruited to appear on Fliplanthropy, ad-libs a goofy character.
Behind the camera, Safdie’s influence is palpable in the stark aesthetic of the show, which he and his and brother Josh honed in their anxiety-inducing filmography, from claustrophobic, verité-style cinematography to a ringing, buzzing score from avant-jazz composer John Medeski and producer Daniel Lopatin, a frequent Safdie collaborator also known as Oneohtrix Point Never. From a technical as well as a thematic standpoint, in its three complementary lead performances, and ultimately in one of the weirdest go-for-broke finales in the history of TV, The Curse is a brain-breaking revelation on par—and of a piece—with The Rehearsal. Once again, it’s Fielder, a man whose face seems frozen in a flinch at the constant awareness of his own existence in this humiliating world, who makes the experience so transcendently uncomfortable.
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