‘The Curse’ Review: Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder Play Married HGTV Stars in Showtime’s Exhilarating, Exhausting Cringe Comedy

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We’re all familiar with the warning presented to people who live in glass houses. But what of people who live in shimmery metal houses?

Per Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s new Showtime limited comedy The Curse, those people shouldn’t do reality TV shows. Just as a metal house — see the work of architect Doug Aitken for examples — might seem to directly reflect the world around it, reality TV shows give the impression of reflecting, well, reality. Instead, both the house and unscripted TV reflect something more warped and distorted and possibly more emotionally revelatory as a result.

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Or that’s the underlying theme in The Curse, a show that’s complicated to properly describe — in a way that will make sense to fans of its key participants. When you take the sensibilities of Safdie (Uncut Gems), half of a fraternal team known for generating high-octane anxiety, and Fielder (The Rehearsal), a master of partially 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 authorial discomfort — the result was never going to be unforced levity or uncomplicated mirth.

The Curse is the year’s squirmiest new show, predictably, a work of anxiety and awkwardness. With 10 episodes, most nearing the hour-long mark, The Curse probably exceeds the FDA’s recommended annual allowance of cringe. It’s a show with a lot to say about the way we’re living now, but a lot of its bristling commentary — most pointedly needling its probable target audience — and a lot of its laughs are sure to get lost as viewers look away in mortification.

Put a different way, The Curse is a show that’s almost certainly going to be more fun to fight about after watching (and after a long, cleansing shower) than it is to watch. By design. So to speak.

Whitney (Stone) and Asher (Fielder) are the husband and wife team behind the pilot for a new HGTV show called Flipanthropy. The premise: Asher and Whitney, who designs so-called “passive houses” in the Aitken-esque metallic reflective vein, are trying to revitalize the New Mexico community of Española, bringing environmentally sustainable living and new jobs to a town better known for crime and poverty. They’re committed to respecting the area’s Indigenous roots, honoring local artists and retaining certifications from the Passive House Society in Germany.

The pilot is produced by Asher’s childhood friend/tormentor Dougie (Safdie), who is committed only to chaos, both in his heavily damaged personal life and in the on-screen “reality” he’s crafting. Whether Dougie is straight-up evil or just Hollywood “evil” is unclear. But he’s able to spot the fissures in Asher and Whitney’s marriage — the sexually dysfunctional couple’s attempts to get pregnant are only adding to the drama — and he’s sure that HGTV viewers will be more interested in THAT show than a series about the pressures of making an entire city carbon-neutral.

Why, you would be correct to ask, is the Showtime series called The Curse?

Well, on a literal level, Asher has an unfortunate parking lot run-in with Nala (Hikmah Warsame) and her father Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), which ends in Nala declaring, “I curse you.” A string of bad luck follows. But is it an actual curse, the manifestation of self-inflicted anxiety or just a product of sadistic series creators?

On a metaphorical level? I’m pretty sure there are a dozen things that the “curse” in the title could refer to.

Primarily, Asher and Whitney are the curse — or perhaps “we” are the curse. The show is a ruthless evisceration of hollow progressive altruism, of performative compassion exercised to make money or seek absolution for other sins. Whitney’s parents (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman) are slumlords and she wants to believe she can suckle at that poisoned teat while still saving the world. Asher formerly worked in a parasitic capacity at a Native casino, struggles with anger issues and has a small penis, which isn’t a “sin,” but is definitely 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 — Stone doing blessings in Hebrew is a sight to behold — is performative as well.

The show is a vicious condemnation of a certain kind of half-committed liberalism, and while it doesn’t quite intend for a 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 midseason episode in which a prominent Hollywood conservative guest stars and gets to teach our anti-heroes a valuable lesson about tolerance.

The Curse uses its Latino, Indigenous and immigrant characters for contrasting authenticity, though I can’t completely tell if it knows that this is a cliché of a different type or it’s actively tweaking that cliché. Either way, it’s a show that cuts close to the bone regarding people whose version of doing good and being tolerant is telling the world they’re doing good and being tolerant.

Dougie may be the devil, but he knows he’s the devil. Do viewers who watch HGTV and HGTV-style shows while critiquing the lack of sexual tension between married renovation experts or predicting divorces for couples hunting for houses have that same level of self-awareness?

The Curse is directed, by Fielder and Nathan & David Zellner, to amplify the reality genre’s version of voyeurism. We’re constantly watching action play out from precarious fly-on-the-wall positions, glancing through partially opaque surfaces, peeking around obstructive props, picking up conversations through hot mics. If you’ve ever fantasized about following Chip and Joanna Gaines when the cameras weren’t rolling, or imagined just how shameful or banal their real-life conversations might be, The Curse is either a show made for you or a punishment for that nosy inclination.

And just as every reality show with paired hosts has the star and the dead weight — we all know which Property Brother is which — Stone and Fielder steer aggressively into their respective roles. Stone is remarkable at capturing the splintering perfection of a woman who’s eager to sell her soul to become America’s sweetheart. And if you’re never quite sure if Fielder is acting at all, that’s the trick of his performance, making you believe that Asher’s desperate neediness and vulnerability might be accidentally revealed.

It’s telling and intentional that many of the supporting performances — expertly cast by Jennifer Venditti and Angelique Midthunder — feel like they’re from a different 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 living real lives in which Asher, Whitney and Dougie are interlopers.

If just wrapping your mind around what the creative team is attempting on The Curse sounds exhausting, that’s nothing compared to watching it at times. The series has refined humiliation and unlikability to the point of kink, and the various misunderstandings and questionable intentions make it hard to root for anything in particular, other than the incineration of many of our culturally shared delusions and illusions.

The Curse is a viscerally unpleasant and frequently fascinating place to spend time. Provided viewers don’t flee in abashed horror at which aspects of their own lives the show reflects back at them, I’ll be very interested to hear the conversations we’re having when the series is over.

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