'The Curse' Is Blessed with Nathan Fielder's Cringe-Comedy Magic

Created by Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie

Starring Nathan Fielder, Benny Safdie, Emma Stone, Barkhad Abdi, Hikmah Warsame, Constance Shulman, Corbin Bernsen

Photo courtesy of A24/Paramount+ with Showtime

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Nov 13, 2023

Nathan Fielder is one of our grandest connoisseurs of cringe comedy. He uses the non-fiction form to push, prod and provoke others into situations that are both gut-busting and wince-inducing in their hilarity. From the wild antics of Nathan for You to the odd existentialism of The Rehearsal, Fielder has made a career of being TV's most socially awkward man. The Curse marks his first foray into the fully scripted world, and though it might not contain the spontaneous magic of his faux-documentary efforts, it's no less absurd and excruciating — perhaps even more so.

A more meticulous and devised approach allows him and co-creator Benny Safdie to turn the dial up to 11, crafting one of the most unforgettable and wondrously uncomfortable series in recent memory. Across 10 episodes, each an hour long, The Curse wriggles itself under the skin, jabbing at the ugliest parts of ourselves, reality television and, to a larger extent, the American experience in the most agonizingly hilarious ways. From its fleshed-out character arcs to its off-putting cinematography, the series never fails to shock and awe, quickly knocking down the borders of its canvas to become a biting satire of, well, pretty much everything: class, gentrification, social media, the entertainment industry, marriage and even colonialism.

The well-to-do couple at the centre of The Curse are, like many of their rich white counterparts, eager to be recognized for the "good" they are achieving while completely terrified of being seen for who they truly are. Newlyweds Asher (Fielder) and Whitney Siegal (Emma Stone) hope to transform their New Mexico community into a bastion for eco-friendly living. Whitney's passive homes employ airtight windows and funhouse-like reflective walls to reduce their environmental footprint, while Asher handles the day-to-day finances and contractual paperwork. Together, they're shooting a pilot for HGTV called Flipanthropy that hopes to promote passive living worldwide.

It's all going well until the titular curse is cast. While Dougie (Safdie), the show's producer and director, is shooting B-roll, Asher catches the ire of a young girl named Nala (Hikmah Warsame) and her father (Barkhad Abdi). What sounds like a harmless threat manifests in ways both devilishly subtle and bizarrely overt, slowly shrouding the production of their reality TV show and the couple's relationship in a growing list of problems. From Whitney's hunger for approval to Asher's phallically-challenged self-esteem, it begins to seem like they really are cursed, but the series is quick to challenge that notion by suggesting they themselves are the curse.

In the hopes of being seen as cultural allies in their community, their actions take on an opposite effect, gentrifying a neighbourhood know for its Hispanic and Native American communities. Like many an entrepreneurial American, the two forcibly place themselves into spaces they don't belong, reopening wounds they claim to be healing. The Curse brings us unnervingly close to their lives, illuminating just how out-of-touch and twisted their version of reality truly is.

It becomes easy to embrace the show's oddities with open arms, as it immerses us in its surreal sense of realism. Shot with a voyeuristic eye, the docu-style camerawork maintains its distance, observing the Siegals at their most vulnerable through windows, car interiors and obscured perspectives, demystifying their lofty reputations with each excruciatingly slow zoom-in and distorted reflection. Fielder, who directs seven episodes, crafts a brooding, painful slow burn that invites us to laugh at the Siegal's tussle with white guilt and, in turn, address our own hand in perpetuating similar social ills. Fielder and Safdie create an addictive, perverse experience that is only empowered by the differing perspectives that are brought to it, reflecting life back at us in painfully revealing ways each time we giddily enter the Siegal's doorway.

Composer John Medeski delivers an ethereal, nightmarish synth score (alongside the show's music producer, Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) that renders the familiar alien. Like the story it accompanies, it bores into the senses, both easing us into The Curse's perverse world while completely unsettling us.

In finding a consistent stream of humour in the couple's dysfunction and hidden traits, The Curse doesn't forget to imbue depth in each of their varied personalities. Stone is firing on all cylinders; armed with a soulless, ear-to-ear grin, she captures Whitney's implicit thoughts with just her bulging eyes. Whitney mightily struggles to disassociate her reputation from her "slumlord" parents (played by Constance Shulman and Corbin Bernsen), but fails to be little more than a sanitized version of them. It's a performance that's comic in its authenticity, especially as her collection of social masks continues to grow in number. 

She finds a perfect foil in Fielder, who not only holds his own acting opposite the Oscar-winner but, at times, steals the show outright. His turn is all about the aura it conjures, shaped by incredibly subtle details that lend power to the moments he finally erupts. Fielder is engrossing to witness, going left just as we think he's going right, pathetic one moment and supremely relatable the next. He cements a character who is so extremely distressing to be with, we can't take our eyes off of him.

Each character is so richly detailed, avoiding obvious foibles and traits at each turn — especially when it comes to Dougie, a scummy producer who isn't afraid to stretch the definition of "reality" if it means good television. He's a character we've seen in countless spoofs of the industry, but Safdie lends him a tragic disposition, powerfully capturing a man haunted by his wife's accidental death. 

For much of its runtime, the limited series teeters on the edge of the supernatural, but its final, mind-boggling episode goes all-in, quite literally flipping the show on its head. It's a departure that is well-earned, a testament to Fielder and Safdie's confidence in their beautifully idiosyncratic vision. Like its head-scratching conclusion, The Curse is destined to be mulled over and debated for years to come, beckoning us to weather its unsettling journey once again for more answers.

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