The premise of The Curse sounds like something any of us could have come up with from the comfort of our couch: How does an HGTV home-renovation couple in the Chip and Joanna Gaines mold operate when the cameras are off? With their new Showtime series, auteurs Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie imagine such a couple descending into a hell of their own making, where their faux-progressive housing innovations and faux-ideal marriage threaten to crumble under the weight of their complete moral bankruptcy. It's a show that is heavy on ambience, features at least one dynamite performance, and can be riveting on a scene-by-scene basis. But like its lead characters, it ultimately falls victim to its own hollowness.
Fielder and Emma Stone play Asher and Whitney Siegel, who are married, white, aggressively liberal, and already in production on what they hope is the first season of their own television juggernaut. The unfortunately titled Fliplanthropy is meant to chronicle their implementation of 10 "passive homes" in the town of Española, New Mexico. These passive homes are Whitney's own design, a revolution in sustainable living in which the hermetically sealed homes act as a kind of energy thermos (that the couple don’t realize the metaphor turns people off because no one would want to live inside a thermos says a lot about their obliviousness).
Both Fielder and Safdie have become critical darlings over the last five or so years for their film and TV work that has leaned heavily on making the audience feel deeply uncomfortable or unbearably stressed out. The Curse puts this white-savior pair's marriage through plenty of discomfort and stress, though it reserves the biggest cringe moments to skewer the way Whitney and Asher make it their identity to care the most about disadvantaged populations or fashionable political causes, all while desperately hustling to make sure their business venture is sufficiently lucrative.
The Siegels' intrusion into the Española community predictably makes everything worse. Whitney's sustainable housing project is positioned as a way to help this poor New Mexico town, which includes a significant Native American community who have been struggling with local government to regain artifacts from their stolen land. The harder Whitney tries to do the things that will make her look good, the more chaos she sows. Stone is incredible in the role, playing Whitney as a dark cautionary tale of the dangers of losing yourself while trying to remake yourself. Her every interaction is a chance to watch Stone play Whitney's calculations: how ingratiating does she need to be in this moment? How much of a salesperson? The moments when she's able to drop the act and just be mean — usually to Asher, sometimes to Dougie, occasionally to regular people — are like sweet, savage releases from whatever tense forces of ambition are holding her together.
Asher, meanwhile, wants to strike the appearance of being a good guy, mostly so he doesn't look like a bad guy. And he's willing to go to humiliating lengths in order to keep up this facade. Fielder plays Asher as a shameless cuck at Whitney's heel (and whose tiny penis is both a sight gag and a major component of his character). The kinds of humiliations Asher puts himself through for the sake of advancing his and Whitney's agenda sometimes feel like Fielder indulging a bit too heavily in his brand of embarrassment comedy. As a result, it's hard to get a handle on whether Asher is a person with recognizable human frailties (as Whitney is, for all her faults) or just a vessel upon which Fielder and Safdie can heap scorn.
Safdie himself plays Dougie, the producer of the Siegels' show, who is constantly trying to shape Fliplanthropy into something more crass or false — "good TV" in a way we're meant to understand is "bad humanity." Dougie is the kind of scumbag who can only exist in a TV show about how people who work in TV are the worst. He once tried to make a reality dating show about women vying for the heart of a masked man who, it turned out in the season's big Joe Millionaire-esque reveal, had third-degree burns all over his body. Safdie gives a good performance, and the writing occasionally nods toward Dougie having hidden depths, particularly the story surrounding his wife's death and the moments when his attachment to both Asher and Whitney veers into something just short of carnal. There are other moments when Dougie seems less like a person and more like a demon sent to expose Whitney and Asher for the people they really are.
It's Dougie who sets in motion the curse of the show's title, in fact, when he advises Asher to go give a local girl selling loose soda cans in a strip-mall parking lot some money, since it'll make good TV. Asher only has a hundred-dollar bill in his wallet, so after the cameras go off, he tries to get his money back from the girl, promising to come back with a twenty. She instead looks at him and says, "I curse you."
That curse hangs in the air for the course of the season, bolstered by cinematography and music choices that suggest some kind of supernatural dread lurking. In the text of the narrative itself, the idea that Nala is some magical Black child who can curse wayward white men is debunked as both silly (Nala says she got the idea from a viral TikTok trend) and racist. But Fielder and Safie won't let go of the curse as a metaphorical conceit for the moral rot that sits at the center of our three main characters and their endeavor in Española.
Of course, if the curse only exists as a metaphor, then the show's semi-frequent detours into Nala's home life with her father and sister (Castle Rock's Barkhad Abdi plays her dad), who are squatting in one of the Siegels' homes, feel all the more shallow. This happens with almost all of the show's side characters, who end up serving as little more than backboards off of which Whitney, Asher, and Dougie can bounce their awfulness. In the context of a show about using people of color as window dressing or as a shortcut to come kind of ill-acquired authenticity, it's a narrative choice that undercuts the show's themes significantly.
This kind of horror-as-not-quite-metaphor approach is where the show's origins as A24's first major TV series come through strongest. But what may have worked in a film is an awfully difficult mood to maintain over the course of 10 long episodes. The big swings late in the season are ultimately a sign that the creators opted to end things in an audacious manner over something more elegant or even satisfying.
The Curse works better as a collection of vignettes about white saviors and people whose desperation for mass approval turns them into barely human creatures of mass media. That's where Stone and Fielder the actor can just clear out some space and go to work. When Safdie and Fielder the creator try to envelop these vignettes in a blanket of metaphysical horror, the results are disappointing, because they aren't prepared to do anything substantial with it.
The Curse premieres November 10th on Paramount+ With Showtime and November 12th at 10:00 PM ET on Showtime. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.