The Curse, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie

Twisted and Ambitious ‘The Curse’ Watches and Condemns Us

Satirizing the struggles of a married couple shooting an HGTV show, Showtime miniseries The Curse bends genres and points fingers to monstrous effect.

The Curse
Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie
Showtime | A24
12 November 2023

You have seen too many works that resemble The Curse, but you have never experienced anything like this. The all-too-familiar tropes of marriage tensions, fraught friendships, televisual spectatorship, self-serving wokeness, cultural appropriation, and criticism of the upper classes take on a singular, bestial form in this insane joyride from a unique blend of creative powers. 

When director Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems, Good Time) teams up with bizarro pal Nathan Fielder (Nathan for You, The Rehearsal), add a musical backdrop by experimental electronic music producer Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and the A-list acting chops of Emma Stone, some things are a given. You know you’re signing up for inhuman levels of tension and cringe, suffocating emotional sadism, relentless satire that’s more horror than comedy, and ripples of visceral affect induced by uncanny images and sounds. 

I’d be remiss to leave out the benefactors A24, indie producers extraordinaire with a penchant for the “psychological”, who brought you Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, and Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun in the past year alone, not to mention Lee Sung Jin’s Beef, the most brilliant television surprise of the year (until now). The end result of these tachycardic couplings is The Curse, a show so twisted and ambitious that each of its many refractions easily warrants a standalone review.

Part reality TV satire, part marriage horror, part indictment of white wokeness, and a million parts something borderline indescribably strange, its ten episodes deftly oscillate between performativity and profundity, humor and shock. The Curse is something like a ten-hour rendition of The Office’s notorious “Dinner Party” episode, but on steroids. For starters, know it is venomously engaging, at times flawed but often brilliant, and well worth your cringe and headache. 

What The Curse Is About

On the face of it, plot-wise, The Curse is about Asher and Whitney Siegel (Fielder and Stone), a newlywed couple looking to establish themselves as artists and philanthropists via – reality television. The Siegels are trying to score big with HGTV through the ludicrously named Flipanthropy, a show about turning houses into “passive homes”, exorbitant but carbon-neutral living spaces posing as artwork and advertised as beneficial for local communities. These “passive homes”, entirely Whitney’s idea except she stole it from Doug Aitken, are, in fact, polyhedral abominations with exteriors made wholly of mirror glass, embodying the nebulous idea of “reflecting” their surroundings. 

While Whitney irks anyone involved with the show with vacuous pleasantries, Asher mostly remains in the background as an invisible lapdog, occasionally leaping up to frenetically scold those who offend his wife. He makes few decisions; instead, he always tries to guess what Whitney wants. She knows this and casually manipulates him to get her way. The two are a walking, talking cringefest whose marriage rests on codependency, not love – but this might actually look good on television. 

The community that bears the brunt of the Siegel’s “ethical gentrifying” ambitions are the indigenous and working class peoples of the town of Española, New Mexico, a place wealthy, alabaster-skin Whitney earnestly refers to as her “home” (she’s Californian). As the locals resentfully avoid participating in woke pretense, Whitney and Asher will stop at nothing to make Flipanthropy “look good”, including subsidizing the tenants’ rent for short periods or creating jobs that disappear as soon as the production wraps up. They do all this with the help of Asher’s childhood friend, greasy producer Dougie Schecter (Benny Safdie), who knows how popular television is made a lot better than the Siegels but offers his insights – and edits – with inscrutable, ominous intentions.  

As Whitney hustles to put Flipanthropy together by incessantly presenting as an “ally” to the indigenous and Latino locals, Dougie guides meek, frustrated Asher through the artifices of self-presentation for mass audiences. One day, at a parking lot, he suggests Asher approach a local black girl, Nala (Hikmah Warsame), and pretend to give her $100 while being filmed. Asher does as instructed, promptly demanding that Nala hands him the bill back so he can “get change”. Enraged by the pathetic fraud, Nala spits, “I curse you”, staring a stunned Asher down. So Asher’s – and everyone else’s – downward spiral of fear, loathing, and paranoia seemingly begins. 

Marriage and production woes ensue as virtually all relationships on The Curse are exposed to be little but masquerades. Asher obsesses over whether Nala’s curse is the reason behind his many misfortunes, Whitney edges toward madness while desperately trying to endear herself to people who hate her, and Dougie’s depression grows as he tries to come to terms with a personal tragedy. Discord and disorder among the crew and other Flipanthropy participants put the production process on thin ice. As the issues keep compounding, the Siegels will fight tooth and nail to stay positive, but indigenous anger or a $1 million loan from Whitney’s slumlord parents will not make things easy on them, and that’s before we so much as mention Dougie’s tireless scheming.  

Things quickly get nasty, and we uncomfortably trail the protagonists as they bicker and embarrass themselves publicly and privately. Mockumentary-style direction and cinéma vérité-ish distance shots through which we spy on the characters’ “real selves” add unprecedented layers of meta-tension: between the viewer on the couch, the viewer on the screen, the director behind the camera, the director on screen, the characters on screen being filmed, and the characters on screen when they believe no one is watching. 

 Brought to a boiling point by Maceo Bishop’s voyeuristic cinematography creeping up around (literally) every corner and Lopatin’s bombardment with deafening Shepard tones, The Curse is so profoundly disturbing it will have you wincing with discomfort. The story itself is relatively straightforward, simple even, but the execution is nothing short of astonishing, for better or for worse. While not much happens, what happens will leave a vicious, lasting impression. 

That’s not to say this singular bizarro-fest, recognized as a black comedy, doesn’t come with plenty of laughs. Running over ten episodes from 38 to 69 minutes, The Curse plays perfectly into its stars’ manifold strengths, manic hilarity being at the very top for all three. The writing is mostly solid, often excellent, but the direction and performances will likely emerge as awards contenders for all. 

Fielder, whose work on the “unscripted” Nathan for You (2013) and The Rehearsal (2022) brought cringe comedy to a new level, here exceeds expectations as a dramatic actor, imbuing the pitiful, passive Asher with intense resentment but keeping his awkward comedic timing. Having co-written everything with Safdie and directed seven out of ten episodes, he suffuses The Curse with scenes greatly resembling his older work. Those familiar with Fielder’s cringe-inducing skills will recognize Asher’s attempts to swindle an old colleague, attend a comedy class, or get closer to Nala’s father Abshir (Barkhad Abdi) as trademark Nathan for You/The Rehearsal moves. The moment he pathetically attempts to force his wealthy white self on the same plane as a black single father and squatter Abshir by saying, “Abshir, sounds just like Asher, hehe,” is stomach-churning. Bonus points for asking Abshir where he’s from. “Minnesota”. 

Benny Safdie, already a household filmmaking name with his brother Josh (here a co-producer), also excels in front of the camera. Most recently of Oppenheimer acting fame, he brings a superb, lethal balance between playfulness and malevolence to Dougie; one is never certain of his intentions or even the veracity of his stories, and that’s precisely the point. Has he bullied Asher in college? Does he have a thing for Whitney? Will his insistence on recording the Siegels fighting actually bring better ratings? Sure, the two faux do-gooders will bite any bait just to get syndication, but what about the, you know, consequences?

Unsurprisingly, Academy Award winner Stone shines brightest as the maniacally plotting “Green queen” Whitney whose grip on her production and reality weakens with each piercing staredown from the less privileged. Probably doing the best work of her career (yes, I’ve seen her role as Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, and here she’s even better), Stone is merciless in her refusal to humanize Whitney; spasmodic grinning and insufferable insistence on being perceived as important make The Curse’s female lead one of the most resolutely repulsive in recent history, and Stone relishes every moment she pretends to pretend that nothing is wrong with the picture. 

What The Curse Is Really About

Theme-wise, stuff gets murkier, luckily by design. The topics of cultural appropriation, displacement, and erasure of indigenous and Americans of color by affluent Whites are on the nose in the service of enhancing the cringe effect. The same goes for the old comedy favorites of entertainment industry satire and newlywed tumult. The creative team milks every nasty but familiar moment of micromanagerial condescension or a “we’ll talk at home” petrified grin. Yes, the atmosphere of infinite dread and cringe makes The Curse an exceptionally uncomfortable watch, but what sets this show apart is not its offbeat meddling with the supernatural or the ludicrous lengths the cast will go to merge comedy and affective discomfort. The conflict at the core of The Curse is not between the characters or even cultures or industries – it’s between the spectator and the performer. 

It helped greatly that I was, purely by accident, re-reading David Foster Wallace’s seminal essay, “E Unibus Pluram“, while watching The Curse. Wallace’s 1990s era-defining piece on television and how Americans process their popular imagery stands as tall as ever in the modern canon but also perfectly explains the components and meta layers of televisual spectatorship Safdie and Fielder lean so heavily on. Quoting Stanley Cavell quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wallace writes: “Only a certain very rare species of person, for Emerson, is ‘fit to stand the gaze of millions.’ It is not your normal, hard-working, quietly desperate species of American. The man who can stand a megagaze is a walking imago, a certain type of transcendent freak who, for Emerson, ‘carries the holiday in his eye’.”

In every structural aspect within Flipanthropy, Whitney and Asher are these imagos whose eyes carry a “potent illusion of a vacation from self-consciousness” and “a total unallergy to gazes”. As performers within their production, they are blank slates of joviality, nominally familiar with the issues of cultural appropriation and displacement but performatively squashing these concepts into oblivion precisely by their insistence on the indigenous population receiving the “benefits” of gentrification. The stores and jobs they set up, the rents they subsidize, all annihilate the discourse surrounding exploitation in actuality – but hey, on TV, this checks all the boxes for wokeness and emotional catharsis! 

A layer above, as spectators of their own performances, the Siegels are aware of the ethical issues with their exploits and “selves”, but circumvent them by neverending delusory self-deceit, convincing themselves their work is “artistic” and valuable for the locals. In this respect, their spectatorial self-awareness and delusions merge to create an image of necessity in what they do and, by extension, see themselves doing on television. In their minds, much as in the minds of the average television spectator, i.e., us, the reality constructed on television is a necessary one, as it recontextualizes “real life” as more bearable and acceptable. 

The Siegels keep guessing what the producers and the public “want”, tirelessly redoing even their most private moments to be captured on film. A good example is a scene in which Asher accidentally rips Whitney’s sweater while pulling it over her head, first sending her into a laughing fit, then leading to her insisting they redo the whole thing and film it. This intersection of the layers of spectatorship is a major cause of ontological insecurity, but on television, everyone follows a simple rule of thumb: the end result always ought to be making the performers feel better by being recognized, and spectators should feel better by watching something idyllic and benign. Basically, so long as the Siegels play into the public’s base instincts and need for comfort, they’ll be fine. The byproduct of eliminating reflexivity for the sake of popularity is not something they will entertain – just like the general public avoids contemplating its many problems, private and public.  

Another layer above, other characters, most notably Dougie, watch the Siegels perform on and around the set. They are an immediate, direct source of ontological insecurity mentioned and the first perceived moderators of the performers’ performances. Asher is somewhat aloof and unreceptive to social cues, but Whitney craves immediate modifiers in her performance, as when she insists on connecting with a crew member who wrote something offensive or when she trails disenchanted potential buyers to convince them “passive houses” are the way to go. 

Both of the Siegels are meta-cognizant of their interdependence with others in their construction of identity, relying on both direct and indirect (more on that in a moment) modifiers to create the best, i.e., the most presentable version of Self. Whitney does this by confronting any potential spectator or other performer she encounters; Asher, on the other hand, has a proxy through which to modify his performances – Dougie. 

In this setup, the performance of the Self becomes the actual Self, which is why the Siegels keep looking to incorporate anyone even remotely tied to the process of its creation. In different ways, the Siegels, especially Whitney, are the perfect simulacra. They “exist” only when performing, but a performance needs to have a spectatorship to be recognized as such. Within this relational nightmare, only a semblance of a desired reality, not reality itself, matters. Neither within Flipanthropy nor in the Siegels’ home is a single critical thought to be found. With The Curse, Safdie and Fielder convey that the same could be said for much of popular television. 

Pressing all these layers together is yet another stratum of recursion, namely the layer of the general public within The Curse, which takes on the role of an indirect modifier for the many performers we meet. The crew and especially the showrunners of Flipanthropy constantly second-guess their every move in a desperate attempt to achieve self-actualization by making themselves ideally presentable. From both psychological and structural (narrative) standpoints, such behavior is expected, as gazing implies a relationship of power in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze. Drawing on late Jacques Lacan, the object of the gaze, in this case, the Siegels, experiences a loss of autonomy upon becoming aware that they are (an object) gazed upon. Their attempts to merge the many gazes around them into a universally accepted and stable image of the Self are the cornerstone of their life. The Curse shows us, the spectators at the outer layer, that in the act of watching (television), performance creates reality, not the other way around. 

The conclusions to be drawn here about Americans as a society of (televisual) spectators are far from sanguine. It is outside of our scope here to argue on how far the regress could continue, where (and if) we could locate a transcendental gaze, and if the fissure of the gazers simultaneously being an object of a gaze can be overcome, but these would be the desired next analytical steps. For now, we can note the interconnectedness of spectatorship and performance in the age of the Media as crucial for the construction of self. The authors of The Curse are acutely aware of this, giving us a rich tapestry of cameras, phones, and social networks through which their many performers fret for their Self, wondering if the content they offer to those who gaze is enough to warrant their existence in the Media landscape (through which the gaze is projected). 

 Perhaps the most eviscerating example of all is Nathan finding out that Nala’s curse on him actually derived from a TikTok trend of “tiny curses”, stuff children say to one another when they are angry (e.g., a “curse” would “cause” someone’s shoelaces to untie). Seeing Nathan’s life unravel over a social media para-reality, a children’s trend, is both hilarious and deeply disturbing – but this is, as Safdie and Fielder show us, how our world works in the era of the Media.

One final layer to all this meta watching and performing are the passive homes themselves, compounds of simulacrum based on a stolen idea, but still very much an existing, material, expensive unifying medium to all the performers and spectators on The Curse. As a literal mirror to their environment, the passive homes are satirical artifacts of Lacan’s mirror stage, through which Whitney and other residents of Española ought to notice and conceptualize their external appearance, their ideal selves. The joke is that the polyhedral shape makes for distorted, refracted reflections. 

As Baudrillardian “monuments of mass simulation that absorb and devour all the cultural energy from its surrounding areas”, the passive homes are advertised as testaments to the indigenous local cultures but are, in reality, nothing more than a money-making machine. Whitney’s obsession with placing the art of an indigenous artist Cara (Nizhonniya Austin) in her homes to “honor” indigenous heritage is just another example of pitiful artifice with no societal value. Even the name of these houses is a sad misdirection – there’s nothing passive about vigorous gentrification and distortion of the local culture. Throughout The Curse, the houses serve as reminders of the spectatorial order, its main derivative being a simulacrum. The experience of performance and spectatorship is here judged through physical participation: reflexive mimicry as they may be, these houses are still real things, evidence of the far-reaching material consequences of all this ephemeral performing. 

Oscillating between all these layers, one character shakes up the nauseating regress – Dougie. Powered by a never-better Benny Safdie, Dougie is a low-key star of The Curse and a modifier wildcard moving beyond the norms of spectatorship. The only character to firmly exist in material reality, he directs the performers toward their (or is it his or ours?) desired goals of popularity and “success”. In a horrifying shoulder-length perm, with Salvation Army garb and more crass jewelry than Thanos, he’s almost a parody of a working man. However, as Asher’s former bully who may or may not have a thing for Whitney, and arguably the only person there who knows how to “make a show”, Dougie is dangerous. 

Worse, as the only one to truly understand the mechanisms of performance and spectatorship, he pulls the strings behind what ought to be said and done, directing and editing Whitney and Asher as they struggle to find viable identities. Present in the majority of scenes the Siegels are in, be it in public or private (!), Dougie actively observes everyone’s performances and openly modifies them, instructing the performers to do this or that for the Flipanthropy pilot to sell. However, Dougie’s actions have no objectivity or benevolence; what he suggests frequently drives a wedge between the frail Siegels and other crew members. His ideas for compelling imagery rest on conflict and resentment and border on sadism. He approaches Whitney in private to tell her she can do better than Asher, just like he secretly probes Asher about an ex-girlfriend. When he has Whitney’s ear, he talks her into re-editing one of the sequences to make clueless Asher look like he’s mocking the indigenous. With Asher, he sows the seeds of insecurity to get funnier footage. You’re guessing right: it’s what the spectators would want. 

While Dougie arguably represents Satan, knowing he is a conduit between the performers on screen and viewers paints a picture not of him as a character but of us. His intimidating pragmatism and lack of benevolence ought to embody the ways in which we as a public want our televisual content. Dougie is the only character on The Curse with plenty of meat and backstory to him, and Safdie mesmerizes as this god of mischief, but his primary purpose is to say out loud what we viewers are thinking but would not dare ask. He might be deceiving the performers on television, but to us audiences, he is the only honest person in any room – including ours.  

Bookending different aspects of analysis, Dougie explicitly gives us the answer to what the continuous tension of establishing one’s Self through a performance, especially in the Media, ought to achieve. It ought to give us entertainment and comfort. Not education, not social commentary, and especially not a faithful representation of the material reality unfolding away from the gaze of the Media. The content, in this case, Flipanthropy and the Siegels’ lives, ought to amuse and pacify both spectators and performers in their pursuit of Self. It’s a cataclysmic truth that shocks and nauseates the most when delivered as a comedy. I need to underscore Safdie’s hypnotically mischievous performance here. Though foremost a writer-director, I cannot imagine anyone doing a better acting job in the role of Dougie than him. 

It goes to the credit of the creative team that The Curse is not an absurdist or postmodern series (despite everything). The regress of commentary and (self)awareness is steeped in performativity, but the omnipresence of the history that shaped the American society – the one that watches three to five hours of television per day on average – is indubitable. No matter how the material is edited or presented, its creation and success rests on the shoulders of the underprivileged and the displaced. 

Flipanthropy would not exist without a community of color for whom to do “philanthropy”, or without displacing poor families like Nala’s and Abshir’s to build “passive homes” for the rich. The material would not be compelling as a fairytale of benevolent success if the poor weren’t used as props for charitable endeavors. Hell, Whitney would not even be making the show if her millionaire parents weren’t known as slumlords. At every turn, we are reminded of the indignities people of color in America endure so that the showrunners can make themselves look good. Abshir and Nala’s home is about to be flipped, as indigenous artist Cara is paid off to agree to have her art legitimize “passive homes”. In typical woke fashion, the Siegels do not erase the “others” from their stories; they proclaim their allyship and use the activist card to score points for themselves. 

It is actually funny that the very existence of the indigenous, people of color, and impoverished workers is presented as a threat to the prosperity and livelihood of the affluent whites – don’t forget the show’s name comes from the curse black girl Nala places on Asher during one of his performances  – but the context is always clear, a scathing indictment of affluent white Americans and their self-serving performativity. It is also noteworthy that none of the troubles of the underprivileged ought to be funny, but we still take them in as such, juxtaposing them with our own spectator profiles of predominantly middle-class, affluent viewers. We take comfort in the discomfort of the Siegels and within ourselves by extension, and the many poor residents of Española end up collateral damage. 

I’d say Safdie’s and Fielder’s most impressive victory with The Curse is avoiding pitfalls, firstly that of absurdism and postmodernity, then of ironic meta-watching and meta-performing across the board. While the show is supremely self-reflexive, the many realities it construes are played as straight mimetic devices. There is no metacinema referring to itself or any breaking of the fourth wall. Confusion arises purposefully when the layers of metawatching intersect; otherwise, the participants are mostly aware of who they are, what they are doing and why, and which reality dominates at which point. Theirs is a shaky order, always in peril of being detonated by the needs of (other) spectators and performers, but an order with clear realities and demands nevertheless.

That these realities are as pathetic and deplorable as the Siegels and their reality show is pointing the finger outward at us viewers at the very outermost layer of spectatorship. If we are deluded or even so much as entertained by all this, it is only because we want to be. In the end, it is we who generate demand and deploy our controlling gazes to what we find desirable or tolerable. At a minimum, we are Dougie. The authors’ question to end all others is, if everything, including the show itself, is just for show, why the hell are we cringing so much? 

How Fielder and Safdie Pull This All Together

While the many ideas of The Curse are considerably more than the sum of their parts, it has to be noted that a number of the show’s quirky features don’t always mesh or work out. For starters, Safdie and Fielder would benefit tremendously from a fully independent editing team and some screenplay guidance. At ten episodes, The Curse is almost double the length of an average miniseries, often stretching its premises until the plot is lost. As with so many works, the middle part plods, with several storylines never taking off or landing anywhere. The tales of Asher’s former employment at an Indian-owned casino or that of the Siegels trying for a baby don’t contribute much to the narrative. Conversely, many of Fielder’s trademark cringe comedy scenes long overstay their welcome, while Stone’s screentime is cut lamentably short. 

Then there is the tampering with the supernatural and absurd and the shock factor, which feels pointless and grows tiring. Some plot points could only be explained by admitting a high schooler tripping on shrooms wrote them, most notably that of Asher’s literal micropenis woes. By leaning too heavily into banality and cringe, Safdie and Fielder sometimes seem to forget what kind of story they are trying to tell here. As a result, The Curse occasionally repels and struggles to sustain attention; worse yet, some of its aspects feel sophomoric, like a dropped South Park punchline. I suspect it might turn some viewers off at the very outset, which would be a shame, as I find the overall experience of this uniquely disconcerting watch invaluable. At the same time, it would be absolutely understandable. 

At the very end of this brilliant but overwhelming melange is, without exaggeration, one of the most bonkers finalés ever seen on television. I am lucky that the critics have been prohibited from mentioning it, as I honestly wouldn’t even know where to start with the commentary. At the time this writing, I don’t know if I like the show’s finalé. I can say, however, that I lament they hadn’t ended things with a glorious blowout at the end of episode nine, which perfectly tied everything up until that point. I expect there’s a scene in there that will put Stone and Fielder at the forefront of next season’s awards race. 

For better or worse, the unbelievably-out-there finalé, which doesn’t necessarily tie in with the rest of The Curse, will undoubtedly shape the viewers’ ultimate impression of the show, and it’s clear Safdie and Fielder intended it to be this way. I fear that there is too much absurdism and lingering unpleasantness for many to stick around until the very end. At any rate, I didn’t enjoy these aspects of the narrative being shoved amid so much astounding material.

There is plenty more to be said about the many, many refractions of the “passive homes” of The Curse, but I will leave this for future discussions. Soon enough, we will know if the world has taken note of this show the way its creators intended. Should this occur, The Curse will become nerd and fanboy canon, with Donnie Darko levels of insane debates about its truly batshit ending we-cannot-mention-at-all. Still, I hope its forceful oddness will not be what it’s remembered for when its most genuine (if not humane) moments are by some margin its strongest narrative asset. 

 At any rate, I recommend you give this gloriously deranged release a try. Even if you become overwhelmed, The Curse will not leave you unimpressed. Flaws and all, it is one of the best, most daring shows of the year, with plenty to offer. If you’ve got the stomach for it, that is.