Give Showtime credit—they granted David Lynch full artistic license to make the wildly unconventional and amazing Twin Peaks: The Return, and they provide similar freedom to Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie with The Curse, a 10-part series that’s the apex of cringe comedy, a bizarre satire of home improvement shows (and, by extension, reality TV), and a nightmarish portrait of marital dysfunction and individual and professional insecurity, bitterness, need, and hatred.
There’s no way to properly stress the sheer strangeness of this out-there affair, nor to prepare audiences for the surprises it has in store. Led by Emma Stone in what may be the finest performance of her career, it’s simultaneously choke-on-your-laughter weird and squirm-inducingly terrifying, the two climaxing in a finale of mind-boggling insanity.
(Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)
Created by Fielder and Safdie, who co-write and direct numerous episodes, The Curse (premiering on Paramount+ Nov. 10 and Nov. 12 on Showtime) initially appears rather straightforward. Whitney (Stone) and Asher (Fielder) are the married hosts of an upcoming HGTV series called Flipanthropy, in which they aim to revitalize Whitney’s rundown hometown of Española, New Mexico. Their goal is to build “passive homes” that use the latest and allegedly greatest green-energy technologies, from reflective-mirror exterior surfaces that make it look like a mirage, to hermetically sealed atmosphere controls that keep temperatures constant without air conditioners and render the place akin to, as Whitney says, “a thermos.”
In this marriage, Whitney leads and Asher follows, and that especially goes for their eco-friendly mission, which extends to a variety of endeavors—a coffee shop, a jeans store—that they’ve launched in order to give back to the community.
Whitney is the embodiment of liberal allyship run amok, her performative do-gooder behavior delivered with an earnestness that can’t mask the fact that everything she does is really about making herself feel and look good. She needs to, as it turns out, since she’s the offspring of parents (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman) who have been tarred and feathered in the press for being “slumlords.” Whitney cares most about how she projects herself, whether she’s embracing husband Asher’s Judaism or offering a job to down-and-out local Fernando (Christopher D. Calderon) at the coffee shop—which is really just a glorified prop shop that Whitney and Asher are personally funding. In every way, Whitney is a phony who’s so desperate to be loved and successful that she buys the very bullshit she’s selling, including the lovey-dovey jokiness she shares with Asher, a partner whose main traits are wholesale awkwardness and staunch devotion to his spouse.
Fielder is his usual abnormal self in The Curse, although he infuses Asher’s oddness with an underlying anger that comes out during moments of tension or confrontation. He also has a micro-penis and some unusual sexual perversions, both of which he and Whitney treat as no big deal but contribute to the strains simmering just behind their cheery facade. In just about every social situation—asked to deliver a funny line in a comedy class; compelled to recite rehearsed spiel in a TV news interview—Asher comes across as a typically reserved and inept Fielder dork who’s nonetheless perceptive enough to recognize others’ opinions of him, and who has internalized his rage to the point of exploding.
Rounding out The Curse’s trio is Dougie Schecter (Safdie), Asher’s childhood friend who has agreed to serve as Flipanthropy’s producer. With long stringy hair and a matching goatee, Dougie is almost as offputtingly eccentric as Asher, albeit in his own unique ways. From his hang-ups about a DUI tragedy that left him a widower to his past and present habit of bullying Asher, Dougie is a constant fly in the proverbial ointment. He has a troublemaking desire to drive Whitney and Asher apart for the good of the program, since he thinks conflict is what makes reality TV work, and his own selfish motives. Safdie makes him a behind-the-scenes sorta-psycho who’s as compelling as his on-air compatriots, inhabiting Dougie with a brand of gauche smiling-yet-scheming creepiness that perfectly fits the rest of the action.
Much of The Curse plays as a wacko takedown of HGTV programming and its reality TV brethren, deriding the genre as a playground for manipulative two-faced narcissists who so vigorously play fictional roles on- and off-camera that the line between what’s genuine and what’s make-believe ceases to exist. It does this in myriad ways, be it Dougie’s efforts to stir the pot to manufacture drama, Whitney’s attempt to befriend and exploit Native American artist Cara (Nizhonniya Austin)—one of many instances in which she valiantly tries to co-opt indigenous culture and traditions for her own ends—or the production’s decision to hire random civilians to pose as buyers for Whitney and Asher’s loony passive home.
Mocking reality television stars for being absurdly disingenuous and affected is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but The Curse elevates its lampoon through sociopathic peculiarity, much of it handled by Stone in a magnificent headlining turn defined by insincere smiles laced, at the corners of her mouth (and in her eyes), with hints of fury, self-loathing, and hurt.
On top of ridiculing HGTV and incisively detailing the ins and outs of Whitney and Asher’s screwy marriage, The Curse functions as a surreal Lynchian horror show. The series is marked by arrhythmic pacing; Fielder’s direction, which gazes at everything and everyone at a detached distance through doorways and behind glass, fences and structures; John Medeski’s ominous otherworldly electronic score, and persistent suggestions about the supernatural—most notably, a curse that Asher receives from young Nala (Hikmah Warsame) following an inept gesture of pseudo-kindness.
Nala’s supposed hex winds up involving Whitney and Asher with her family, led by Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), and it casts a dreadful pall over the proceedings. Whether something paranormal is afoot is kept oblique for most of the series’ 10 hours, and while an apparent answer materializes in the finale, that closing episode is so astonishing and outlandish that it’s destined to inspire debate about what’s taken place—once, that is, viewers have picked their jaws up off the floor.
Between Nathan For You, The Rehearsal and his latest, Fielder has carved out a niche as the king of off-the-wall comedy, creating long-form works that are as uncomfortable and daring as they are amusing. Collaborating with the great Safdie and tremendous Stone, his The Curse proves another jewel in his off-kilter crown.