‘The Curse’ Is the Most Watchable Show Nathan Fielder Has Ever Attempted
If you know who Nathan Fielder is, you probably don’t feel neutral about him. As the creator and star of Comedy Central’s Nathan for You and HBO’s The Rehearsal, Fielder has made TV out of extremely cringey situations, largely involving non-performers who appear as themselves and share their real problems with him. Fielder’s fans relish the laughs that Fielder, with his trademark deadpan and generally recessive on-screen presence, can wring out of his oblivious-seeming civilian participants. Fielder abstainers find his shows skin-crawlingly unbearable, their premises unavoidably inviting the viewer to think through all the layers of production it took to get weird but otherwise ordinary people to expose themselves to cameras they’re not accustomed to facing.
As someone very much in the latter category, learning that Fielder had joined forces with Benny Safdie to co-create Showtime’s new dramedy The Curse was horrifying: With his brother Josh, Safdie has made movies, including Good Time and Uncut Gems, that revolve around protagonists so determinedly self-destructive that I could only watch them through my fingers. Yet somehow, The Curse is the most watchable Fielder show I’ve ever attempted.
Fielder stars as Asher Siegel. Formerly employed by a New Mexico casino, Asher has since moved into real estate. With his wife Whitney (Emma Stone), Asher has been buying properties in Española, a smallish town north of Santa Fe; after tearing down the houses on their plots, they build brand-new passive houses, which have much smaller environmental footprints than standard homes. As they go, displacing residents of the homes they’ve demolished to build houses those residents could never afford, the Siegels try to mitigate the damage they wreak. When one has to move into a house that’s more expensive than the one she lost, the Siegels arrange for her to keep paying the same amount she was before, making up the difference with her landlord; for another who’s supporting his mother through cancer treatment, they secure a job at a coffee shop in the shopping plaza they own.
The Siegels are also documenting these efforts — as well as profiling the people who do have the means to buy their new houses — for Flipanthropy, an unscripted HGTV show that, as we meet them, is still only in the pilot stage. Aiding them in the process is Dougie Schecter (Safdie), a reality TV producer Asher has known since childhood. The three have a lot riding on this project. Dougie is mourning a fairly recent tragedy, and one of the other reality shows he conceived and is proud to show the Siegels never made it to air, so it’s unclear how long it’s been since he has had a hit. Whitney is anxious to distance herself from her parents, Paul and Elizabeth Rhodes (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman), notorious Santa Fe slum lords. And Asher, who was involved in some unsavory activity at the casino, is desperate not only to redeem himself morally through what he believes are Whitney’s good works, but also to prove himself worthy of her.
Unfortunately, one of the first things we see him do is offer a $100, free and clear, to a girl named Nala (Dahabo Ahmed) selling soda in the plaza parking lot, at Dougie’s direction, to show how the Siegels do good in the community. Then, when he believes he’s not being filmed, Asher asks for it back, promising her $20 when he can get change. Nala refuses, warning Asher that if he reneges on the gift, she’ll curse him. He snatches it back, and she declares, “I curse you.”
When bad stuff starts happening to Asher, is it because of the curse, or chance, or his own mistakes? How contemptuous should we be of people who seek fame through reality TV? Is it ethical? Is flipping? What is the exact point where conscious efforts to decarcerate one’s thinking cross into white saviorism? Is it actually possible to launder one’s family’s ill-gotten wealth through philanthropy? Can any house truly be passive? These are just a few of the many questions raised through this very ambitious show’s 10 episodes, most of which clock in around the hour mark.
The degree to which reality TV is artificially constructed is, at this late stage, a somewhat obvious target for satire — but The Curse knows that too, and its take on it is as elevated as one would expect of a show starring an Oscar nominee (Barkhad Abdi, who plays Nala’s father, Abshir); and an Oscar winner, Stone, who’s very likely to be nominated again this year (for her role in the Yorgos Lanthimos feature Poor Things). The exteriors of Whitney’s passive houses are covered in panels of very slightly warped mirrors, which render warped images of everything they reflect, much as Flipanthropy does.
Of course, there are scenes where Dougie deploys tricks he’s learned over his career. In the very first scene, when the new coffee shop barista’s mother, a cancer patient, is not effusive enough in her gratitude for the job the Siegels have gotten her son, Dougie blows menthol in her eyes to make them redden and tear. But the fun-house distortions of everyone’s self-image is the show’s primary concern. Dougie knows that Asher, someone he bullied as a kid, is probably set for life now that he’s married to Whitney, so he aggrandizes his expertise in TV, the field Asher and especially Whitney have to break into in order to make sure their real estate plays pay off. Whitney has taken so many measures to divest herself (in every way but financially) from her parents’ monstrous reputation that she’s actually convinced herself her good deeds are as impressive as she’s made them seem to residents of the town and Dougie’s cameras.
The gap between the persona Asher’s adopted for Flipanthropy and his natural stinginess is what occasions a curse that gives the show its title, but the one imposed on him by a stranger is certainly not the only curse on his head. A physical attribute that predates the show is a running joke (or horror — it’s a fine line) I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say, parts of Asher reflected in the ungenerous mirrors may be even smaller than they appear.
For someone who started her career as a would-be Laurie in a reality show about reviving The Partridge Family, Emma Stone has had one of the more unexpectedly versatile careers of her generation — the run of La La Land to Battle of the Sexes to The Favourite to the Netflix series Maniac kind of tells the whole story. An acclaimed and beloved actress loves to sink her teeth into the role of a hilariously oblivious monster, but there’s a big difference between, say, any of the leads in Big Little Lies and Whitney, a transcendently awful asshole whose need to make herself important is ruining lives — and may, if she is successful in her aims, actually ruin an entire town. If Stone hadn’t come to the part with complete commitment and fearlessness, The Curse could not work, and multiple times in every episode, I was astonished at her lack of vanity.
Stone and Fielder spend the series trading off which of them is the bigger jackass, though because of the power imbalance between them, the forms of their jackassery are exactly opposite. Fielder performs in the shows mentioned above as “himself,” but The Curse is a reversal of what he’s best known for: It’s a scripted performance that requires him to be more vulnerable than I’ve ever seen him. As Dougie, Safdie proves his performances earlier this year, in Oppenheimer and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., weren’t flukes. He has a natural quality as a scumbag reality producer that deepens as we learn more about Dougie’s recent past. I’m not sure the entire season hangs together (though the embargo prevents me from saying more), but I was riveted the whole way through, and even when it’s at its most challenging, it’s never boring.
The Curse is cursed by being on a second-tier prestige platform, but Fielder fans are at least going to try to mooch a password to watch it, and even Fielder skeptics might be partially converted.