From the very jump of the Showtime x A24 collab The Curse, we go a bit claustrophobic, looking into the window of Fernando (Christopher D. Calderon), an ex-gangbanger and his cancer-stricken mother. Asher (Nathan Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone) Siegel are a couple filming the pilot of their HGTV series. Even with their joyous reveal of ‘giving’ Fernando a job at the new local coffee shop, I’m feeling tense. As a fan of Fielder’s, viewing the ‘uncomfortable’ might be a kink of mine because it’s at times a task for me to stare it down in person. Watching him feels like I’m afloat in a warm, saltwater soak until long, greasy-tressed showrunner Dougie Schecter (Benny Safdie) enters the picture, exercising creative license, fabricating tears for the mother, blowing menthol in her eyes for the redness. I’m suddenly feeling a bit uneasy inside. So far, the price of admission is one dropped stomach and I’ll happily plunk it down.
Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems, Oppenheimer) and brother Josh are goddamn craftsmen with high tension and anxiety. I remember feeling equal parts amped and uneasy watching Uncut Gems. When you combine that with the 151 Proof of Nathan Fielder’s awkwardness, the cold open feels like my first time drinking White Russians: I was queasy throughout, but the taste and elation of inebriation had me going back for more. Bottoms up.
Making Dougie an asset highly recommended by the network gives his agency more bite, but making Whitney’s character aware of their situation gives her more of an edge. The goddamn optics look pretty touchy themselves with them both being a straight, white married Tesla-driving couple who travel to Española, New Mexico to ‘save’ its destitute Hispanic/Latino community with their new eco-friendly homes, driving up the rent and ultimately displacing the Hispanic/Latino community like what happened to the Indigenous before them… for public display.
It’s gorgeously stomach-churning, right down to Whitney’s ‘invisible homes’ as an architectural example of the farce hidden in plain sight. The ‘net-zero’ passive houses are what I can only describe as Architectural Digest subscriber’s fever dream, externally looking like reflective modern art installations. Similar designs are meant to reflect nature, essentially erasing the house itself, which is what they’re doing to this neighborhood, deleting it. The structures are good “show, don’t tell”, just irritating enough to be disruptors in their own right.
On opening day at the Barrier Coffee shop, Asher blows quite possibly their only shot at promotion, interviewing with the local news station, blowing up at field reporter Monica (Tessa Mentus) for a sneak attack on Whitney doing more harm than good with her houses and mentioning her slumlord lineage, prompting Asher’s Mr. Hyde to emerge. Though not entirely unsolicited, his hostility is fucking creepy because it’s bubbling passive aggression, a measured type of screaming.
The ghastly first impression is a testament to Nathan’s acting. I felt that shit, so it only makes sense to me that he makes it right with a scoop for the reporter to retire off of in order for the review to be killed. It’s “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul”, which is precisely the type of high-stakes shit we had seen with Benny’s other work.
We don’t let up when the focus shifts to Dougie, staging an extemporaneous shot with Asher and a little black girl selling soda, embodying the very foundation of what makes reality TV the insidious mind rot it is. When the camera rolls, a redemptive moment blossoms before our very eyes before Asher figuratively snatches it away from us and literally from the little girl, prompting her to “curse” him, twisting the tone in a most distorted way.
Who even cares if his meeting with Monica ended kind of positively? A curse is in play and by dint of watching Asher, I feel cursed. Messes showing up on one’s doorstep? Compartmentalizing acts of shit so they don’t intersect until they all explode in magnificent fashion? It’s a Safdie staple for a reason.
Whitney’s parents fittingly don’t win any humanitarian awards. Paul (Corbin Bersen) is at best tolerant of his Jewish son-in-law with his wife Elizabeth (Constance Shulman) at least contributing to her daughter’s eating disorder. We’re not meant to like any of these people, but maybe just be surprised by them. Paul’s greenhouse speech about small dicks whilst he nourishes his tomato’s soil with his own urine is oddly enlightened, creeping back into the surreal. We get a solid glimpse of Asher when he urinates a few scenes prior and though I remember vaguely reading about it beforehand, it still snuck up on me. It’s not used for titillation but rather food for thought. Could this be the source of the dude’s anger, this curse, and the only way Asher can accept his gift, which, from what Paul says in no uncertain terms is accepting the truth? It’s a matter of philosophy ending on a ‘button’ of a visual micro-penis gag. “The Cherry Tomato Boys.” Wow.
Crass? Yes. Cringe? You bet, and even after a tender moment of decompression when finally home after a tense car ride, we’re back for more “Should I be watching?” in the bedroom where Asher uses a vibrator named “Steven” on his wife while being frozen out. It feels like we’re not meant to see this, but yet here we are. Then again, why should I spend all this glorious time feeling gross when it’s been a minute since I last felt dirty?
This comes hilariously in the form of Dougie showing Asher and Whitney his unaired reality dating show that places a masked burn victim in front of 15 potential partners. It’s hilariously in horrific taste, but the silliness is quickly swapped for queasiness when Whitney comes across the footage shot from earlier with the little girl. Come on, did you really think Dougie would cut?
I’m a fan of Asher consequently being forced to right a heinous wrong and pinheadedly ignoring the few ways he could. Sure, he doesn’t find the little girl, but instead of helping keep the lights on in a homeless shelter for one more night, he paints over the necrotic wood of his soul by giving a woman with a baby the money (only maybe scoring him a couple of good Karma points) then lying to his wife about finding the girl, embellishing to make himself sound heroic (putting him in the Karmic debt).
The episode titled “Land of Enchantment” ends with Dougie in Whitney’s ear and a question in ours. Sure, Dougie’s scuzzy, but at least he didn’t dash a little girl’s dreams. What would we do? It’s given the audience an interesting hypothetical to mull about.
Showtime Studios with A24 is an inspired choice, though I can see where the divisiveness can factor in. A24 is like McDonald’s in that when you pass the Golden Arches, you don’t smell food, you smell a brand. This arthouse studio is no different. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I can see where A24 sycophants (like myself) will eat this up without holding more of a critical eye to it.
From the sometimes distant, yet intimate cameras, we’re given something that feels voyeuristic, not unlike the Nathan Fielder docu-comedy The Rehearsal. Benny Safdie employs the sick synths, compliments of jazz musician John Medeski and fellow Safide collaborator electronic music producer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) to keep the tension taut. The score grips you and never lets go, no matter the tonal shifts in the script.
In a show where glass houses are as much of a visual satire as they are a metaphor, we see the real invisible house, the farce of the facade: a couple constantly wallpapering over their shit for the camera. Seem like good bones to me.