We all know the warning to people living in greenhouses. But what about people who live in shiny metal houses?
Per Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s new limited comedy from Showtime The curse, those people shouldn’t be doing reality TV shows. Just as a metal house – see the work of architect Doug Aitken for examples – appears to directly reflect the world around it, reality TV shows give the impression that they mirror reality. Instead, both the house and the unscripted TV reflect something even more distorted and distorted, and therefore potentially more emotionally revealing.
It comes down to
The twistiest new show of the year.
Broadcast date: 10:00 PM Sunday, November 12 (Showtime)
Form: Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder, Benny Safdie
Makers: Benny Safdie and Nathan Fielder
Or that’s the underlying theme The curse, a show that’s complicated to properly describe — in a way that makes sense to fans of its main contestants. If you adopt Safdie’s sensibilities (Uncut gemstones), one half of a fraternal team known for generating high-octane fear, and Fielder (The rehearsal), a master of partly unscripted awkwardness – and inject the game-for-anything star power of Emma Stone, who has given some of her best performances when asked to channel the author’s discomfort – the result was never going to be casual levity or be uncomplicated cheerfulness.
The curse is the most tortuous new show of the year, predictably, a work of dread and awkwardness. With 10 episodes, most of which last almost an hour, The curse is likely greater than the FDA’s recommended annual amount of cringe. It’s a show that has a lot to say about the way we live now, but much of the sharp commentary – most emphatically needed by its likely target audience – and many of the laughs will surely be lost as viewers look away in outrage. .
Put it another way, The curse is a show that will almost certainly be more fun to fight about after watching (and after a long, cleansing shower) than it will be to watch. Deliberately. So to speak.
Whitney (Stone) and Asher (Fielder) are the couple behind the pilot for a new HGTV show called Flipanthropy. The premise: Asher and Whitney, who are designing so-called “passive houses” in the Aitken-esque metal reflective vein, seek to revitalize the New Mexico community of Española, bringing environmentally sustainable living and new jobs to a city that better known for its crime and poverty. They are committed to respecting the area’s indigenous roots, honoring local artists, and maintaining certifications from the Passive House Society of Germany.
The pilot is produced by Asher’s childhood friend/tormentor Dougie (Safdie), who is only committed to causing chaos, both in his deeply damaged personal life and in the “reality” he creates on screen. Whether Dougie is outright evil or just Hollywood “evil” is unclear. But he’s able to uncover the rifts in Asher and Whitney’s marriage — the sexually dysfunctional couple’s attempts to conceive only add to the drama — and he’s sure HGTV viewers will be more interested in THAT show then in a series about the pressures of making an entire city carbon neutral.
Why, you might rightly ask, is the Showtime series called? The curse?
Well, on a literal level, Asher has an unfortunate parking lot run-in with Nala (Dahabo Ahmed) and her father Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), which ends in Nala saying, “I curse you.” A series of bad luck follows. But is it an actual curse, the expression of self-induced fear or simply a product of the makers of sadistic series?
On a metaphorical level? I’m pretty sure there are a dozen things the “curse” in the title could refer to.
First of all, Asher and Whitney are the curse – or maybe “we” are the curse. The show is a brutal dismantling of hollow progressive altruism, of performative compassion practiced to make money or seek absolution for other sins. Whitney’s parents (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman) are slum landlords and she wants to believe she can suck that poisoned pacifier and save the world at the same time. Asher previously worked in a parasitic capacity at a Native casino, struggles with anger issues, and has a small penis, which isn’t a “sin” but certainly a motivating factor. Everything they do is under the guise of healing the world or the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which Whitney wouldn’t understand because her conversion to Judaism – blessing stones in Hebrew is a sight to behold – is also performative is.
The show is a vicious condemnation of a certain brand of half-committed liberalism, and while it doesn’t quite set out to be South Park-style “People on both sides are crazy, but let’s focus on left-wing hypocrisy” commentary, there’s a lot of that – especially in a mid-season episode that stars a prominent conservative Hollywood guest and gives our anti-heroes a valuable lesson may learn lesson about tolerance.
The curse uses its Latino, native, and immigrant characters to contrast authenticity, though I can’t quite tell if it knows this is a cliché of a different type or if it’s actively adapting that cliché. Either way, it’s a show that cuts to the bone about people whose version of doing good and being tolerant tells the world that they are doing good and being tolerant.
Dougie may be the devil, but he knows he’s the devil. Do viewers who watch HGTV and HGTV-like shows while criticizing the lack of sexual tension between married renovation experts or predicting divorce for house-hunting couples have the same level of self-awareness?
The curse is directed by Fielder and Nathan and David Zellner to enhance the reality genre’s version of voyeurism. We’re constantly watching the action unfold from precarious fly-on-the-wall positions, looking through partially opaque surfaces, peeking around obstacles, and picking up conversations through hot microphones. If you’ve ever fantasized about following Chip and Joanna Gaines when the cameras weren’t rolling, or imagined how embarrassing or banal their conversations could be in real life: The curse is either a show for you or a punishment for that curious tendency.
And just as every reality show with paired hosts has the star and the dead weight – we all know which Property Brother which is – Stone and Fielder steer aggressively in their respective roles. Stone is remarkable in capturing the shattering perfection of a woman eager to sell her soul to become America’s sweetheart. And if you’re never quite sure whether Fielder is acting at all, that’s the trick of his performance, which makes you believe that Asher’s desperate neediness and vulnerability could be exposed by accident.
Tellingly and intentionally, many of the supporting performances – expertly cast by Jennifer Venditti and Angelique Midthunder – feel like they’re from another show. Whether you recognize those actors or not – Abdi, Gary Farmer and Nizhonniya Luxi Austin, a Diné painter and musician by trade – the characters all give the impression of a real life in which Asher, Whitney and Dougie are intruders.
As long as you focus on what the creative team is trying to do The curse sounds tiring, but that’s nothing compared to watching it every now and then. The series has refined the humiliation and implausibility to the point of kink, and the various misunderstandings and questionable intentions make it difficult to root for anything other than the incineration of many of our culturally shared delusions and illusions.
The curse is a viscerally unpleasant and often fascinating place to spend time. Provided viewers don’t run in embarrassed horror at whatever aspects of their own lives the show reflects back on them, I’ll be very interested to hear the conversations we have once the series is over.