Last year, Nathan Fielder’s self-named character in his semi-fictional show The Rehearsal built an ever-expanding fake world around himself as insulation from anything outside of his anxiety-induced control. This year, Asher, the character he plays in his first fully-fictional show, The Curse, does something similar. Or, to be more precise, he helps his wife, Whitney (Emma Stone), build a reflective façade to obscure her insecurities around privilege and her dodgy family background, despite sharing none of the values she defensively, delusionally, and almost genuinely espouses. It’s a desperate attempt to stay in service to her so that she’ll never think of leaving him.
This illusion is created most literally through the neatly curated reality show the couple are making for HGTV, inelegantly titled Flipanthropy. In their show, the pair sell expensive and hideous mirrored homes in the very poor community of Española, which the houses — designed by Whitney herself with some, shall we say, healthy inspiration — are supposed to reflect, but also lift up. And to avoid what they call “the g-word,” they provide locals who would otherwise be priced out with jobs at a coffee shop, one that also happens to be a paid sponsor with only a six-month lease and no contractual obligation to stay open outside of filming.
Unlike Fielder’s character in The Rehearsal, it’s not the outside world that Whitney wants to hide from, but one more interior, right down to her bloodline: her parents are infamous “slumlords.” But both of these characters’ anxieties express themselves through control. Whitney lets herself ignore the way her insensitivity plays out — all the other local property that she and Asher own is liable to increase greatly in value once their show comes out — so that she’s able to believe she’s doing something charitable, this while also occasionally letting slip that she thinks only certain people “deserve” to live in Española and she should be the one to discern who. It’s hardly the ennobling delusion of manifest destiny, but it’s still a pathetic echo of the same ideology of supremacy and control.
Her only real threat, and even then only personally rather than ideologically, is Dougie (Benny Safdie), a long-haired fuck-up who still wears heavy metal T-shirts and whose mid-20s beard is starting to grey. He’s an old friend of Asher’s insofar as he ruthlessly bullied him in high school, all while Asher refused to believe he wasn’t in on the joke. Now he’s directing their show and has little interest in creating some perfect, frictionless sheen; in fact, he’s always nudging the couple toward conflict and manufacturing uncomfortable situations (a careless and chaotic on-set attitude that rings uncomfortably with accusations made around the actor and show co-writer/co-creator).
After the massive ambition of The Rehearsal, the announcement of Fielder’s move to fiction was undeniably intriguing. But despite him being credited as the director or co-director on most episodes, the Safdie brothers (Josh is an executive producer) feel like the stronger directorial voice. Perhaps Fielder is trying to find his voice through theirs, and his involvement can be distinctly felt in some interesting tweaks: the cameras are kept at their usual distance, which the Safdies use to leave their scenes immediate and unmediated, but the cars they are shot from and the crevices they shoot through are made visible, creating an opposing sense of enclosure. This choice works to play into the central couple’s paranoia in ways both unjustified — the infringement on their very middle class sense of privacy — and justified — Dougie starts to secretly film them.
The more substantial difference, then, is a lack of propulsion. That’s partly due to the nature of a segmented TV show, but Fielder and Benny Safdie don’t try to craft the episodes as distinct units, so even if they were interested in building momentum, it would have to come with week-long gaps. And without a charismatic center to hold onto — Asher is so unbearable he gets kicked out of a corporate comedy class, and for as brilliant as Stone’s melancholic and purposely phony performance is, Whitney is too false to really connect with — viewers are left unmoored to steep in the horrible atmosphere. Uncomfortable situations never really build into something more complex or comic — their delusions and cruelties merely play out, slowly and stupidly.
But as the show starts to pivot towards absurdity — especially in the in-and-of-itself quite brilliant but maybe beside-the-point final episode that is still under embargo — that confrontational discomfort starts to soften, though John Medeski’s organically alien score manages to keep it all feeling woozy and off-center rather than farcical. Asher, comedy micro-penis prosthetic in hand, has fewer moments with the painful ring of truth. Fewer moments like Whitney excitedly telling Asher she’s pregnant, only for him, pleading and selfish, to crush her moment of joy under his anxieties by asking if she still loves him. By the time he reaches the point of total self-sublimation, echoing the ending of The Rehearsal but without real feeling quite shining through the webs of obfuscations, he falls a little out of orbit. And the specificity of Whitney’s background gives the audience a comfortable bit of padding.
A certain instructive symmetry with the show can be found through the character of Cara (Nizhonniya Austin), a Native American artist and Whitney’s closest equivalent to Dougie, a woman who openly bullies her in the presence of company, on their own and on camera, knowing that Whitney is too scared of looking unwoke to do anything about it and too eager to feel like Cara’s colleague, like a fellow artist, to take it for what it obviously is. Much of Cara’s art comes from recontextualizing racist kitsch, which she usually steals, literally taking ownership of the representation of her people and putting these images’ cruel stupidity front and center. In one part of her exhibit, she brings people into a tipi with her one by one, then cuts off a few pieces of turkey and hands it to them on a paper plate. When it’s her turn, Whitney comes in and looks down, giving the po-faced Cara the kind of patronizingly supportive smile you might give to a child in a school play, and takes a bite. Cara screams, and then the performance is over. When she later explains that the meat represents the parts of herself that she shares with other people and that Whitney chose to consume it, the latter can only keep on smiling, gleaming about just how beautiful an idea it is.
This art, however cynical or sincere you might find it, ends up becoming a way for the kind of affluent white person who can afford art to exonerate themselves; facing their white guilt in a way that assuages any personal guilt — when a local Native Governor played by the great Gary Farmer sees Cara’s performance, he can hardly hide how deeply stupid he finds it. The Curse is often brilliant, always well-constructed, and darkly engaging, but it becomes similarly unchallenging in its little accumulation of flinches. This nightmare couple of self-hatred and class violence look enough like — let’s be honest — a good amount of the people who will watch this show to make us suitably squirm, but are so distorted as to never pierce the skin. Like Whitney’s houses, The Curse reflects a warped image, but fails to understand that it’s far easier to contend with our own funhouse reflections than to see clearly our eyes and look deeply into them.
CREATOR: Nathan Fielder & Benny Safdie; CAST: Nathan Fielder, Emma Stone, Benny Safdie, Corbin Bernsen, Constance Shulman; DISTRIBUTOR: Showtime/Paramount+; STREAMING: November 12