December 2023 – January 2024

Noted

‘The Curse’

By Tara Kenny
Scene from ‘The Curse’
Nathan Fielder directs and co-stars in an erratic comedy about the performative benevolence of a couple creating a social housing reality TV show

Whitney and Asher Siegel (Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder) are self-proclaimed “good people”. They’ve made it their business to “consciously rejuvenate distressed homes” as a way to line their pockets while ostensibly bringing investment to the economically depressed town of Española, New Mexico, a predominantly Latino community with a significant Native American presence. To sell their homes and spread the word that “gentrification doesn’t have to be a game of winners and losers”, the Siegels have recruited Asher’s slimy childhood friend Dougie (Benny Safdie), a down-and-out producer, to help them get a reality TV show, Fliplanthropy, off the ground. So begins The Curse (Paramount+),  a 10-episode comedy-drama series mostly directed by Fielder, and created and written by Fielder and Safdie.

While Whitney and Asher lead with their commitment to bettering Española, they’re outsiders who struggle to connect with locals, and barely hide their thinly veiled suspicion. While Stone is pitch perfect as a moneyed, well-meaning white saviour, recent years have produced a glut of “eat the rich” entertainment, from the incisive (Parasite, The White Lotus) to the plodding (The Menu, Glass Onion). Luckily, The Curse goes beyond low-hanging, tepid satire of the wealthy, deploying Fielder’s and Safdie’s respective masteries of excruciating awkwardness and tension to explore not only class and privilege but also artifice, love, morality and the supernatural.

From the outset, there is internal discord about what kind of show Fliplanthropy should be. Whitney and Asher are adamant it’s a vehicle through which to help the community, but are routinely disappointed when their good deeds are not met with adequately enthusiastic on-camera responses; perceived benevolence is privileged above actual impact. Multiple former contestants on real-life house-flipping and home-renovation shows have sued and spoken out about being promised a dream home, but left with a house of cards. Similarly, over the course of The Curse, it becomes clear that while Whitney’s so-called passive homes look and sound aspirational on camera, their unpredictable temperatures (rooms becoming so hot they could harm babies), propensity for killing birds and need to remain hermetically sealed render them effectively unliveable.

Meanwhile Dougie, fuelled by a combination of artistic vision and resentment for his old friend, is quietly working on a different project – one that foregrounds the simmering tensions between Whitney and Asher. Asher is a full blown “wife guy” who projects nonexistent moral purity onto his beloved, and Whitney is solely interested in Asher’s constant supply of adoration and the practical necessity of his presence for their show. As with the best reality TV, the couple’s interactions can feel so squeamishly intimate that the viewer is almost compelled to look away.

The show-within-a-show format allows Fielder to continue his project of grappling with moral questions around the arguably exploitative nature of his work, within the work itself. Both his Comedy Central show Nathan For You, which showcased consistently absurd attempts to help struggling small businesses, and last year’s HBO series The Rehearsal, which saw participants practise challenging, elaborate real-life scenarios ahead of time, received criticism from viewers who felt Fielder had set unwitting victims up for public ridicule. While The Curse again sees him in the role of reality TV host, here he is a sidelined figure – more court jester than puppet master – blissfully unaware of certain secret, key machinations.

Where much television is predictable and formulaic, The Curse is strange and erratic, splintering off in dozens of seemingly unrelated directions, many of which are never fully resolved. For those seeking comfort and ease from their entertainment, it will be a hard sell. The episodes run long, at times it feels more like an extended art house film than a TV show, and the ending raises more questions than it answers. The Curse is not for everyone, but it will deeply reward those willing to ruminate in the weirdness.

Tara Kenny

Tara Kenny is a culture writer and The Monthly’s television critic. Online, she is @slurpette.

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