Nathan Fielder has created and starred in two of the most cringe-inducing comedies of the past decade in Nathan for You and The Rehearsal. Benny Safdie has, with his brother Josh, directed some of the most profoundly uncomfortable films of the past few years, including Uncut Gems. So when Fielder and Safdie team up for a new project, Showtime’s The Curse, of course it’s going to make you want to climb out of your skin within minutes.
Fielder stars as Asher Seigel, who, along with wife Whitney (Emma Stone), runs a New Mexico real-estate-development company dedicated to sustainability and respecting local cultures. While filming a pilot for an HGTV show, produced by Asher’s childhood frenemy Dougie (Safdie), all the fissures in Asher and Whitney’s marriage, and all of the hypocrisy lurking beneath their idealistic facades, are exposed and magnified. Meanwhile, Asher offends the daughter of Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), a man squatting in one of the properties the Seigels own. The little girl places a curse on Asher, and he begins to believe it’s coming true.
In one episode, the couple have an argument about Indigenous artist Cara (Nizhonniya Austin). Fumbling for a point, Asher suggests, “Art is about … art is about … um … I mean, sometimes you have to go to extreme lengths to make your point is what I’m saying.” The Curse is a show that will go to the most extreme lengths it can to make its point. This means having to face some utterly baffling narrative turns along the way.
If this sounds excruciating, it frequently is, perhaps too much for even the most ardent fans of either co-creator. Fielder has, in the past, deployed the awkwardness of his onscreen persona in the service of humor, but The Curse is decidedly not a comedy. And where the Safdies often try to make their audience sweat within a thriller context, this is a much more straightforward drama, where the main source of tension is how far into a given scene it will take for someone to do or say the worst possible thing for that situation.
If it’s difficult to sit through, The Curse is also not dull, nor is it entirely onscreen misery for its own sake. The show has a lot to say about the fakery of reality TV, and how actual relationships get transformed into brands. There’s also a lot of thoughtful material about gentrification, appropriation, and the challenges of trying to live an ethical life. Whitney’s climate-neutral “passive homes” — covered on the outside in reflective glass that turns everyone into a fun-house-mirror image — are as flawed and frequently stifling as the Seigel marriage.
Fielder and Stone also make a fascinating onscreen duo. Asher has certain socially clumsy traits in common with the version of himself that Fielder has played on other shows. But this is a much more raw, emotionally complex role. Asher keeps a lot of rage and resentment bottled in, and whenever he lets it out, Fielder in no way seems outclassed by his Oscar-winning co-star.
But 10 episodes are way too many for a story this small, and the longer we have to watch the relationship curdle, the less potent the material feels. There are also too many abrupt reversals involving Asher and Whitney’s relationships with Dougie, despite ample evidence that he’s repellent and not to be trusted.
At times, the series implies that curses and magic are real, and at others seems convinced that everyone’s misery comes from their own choices and actions. In the end, the mix of tones and genres is more confounding than exciting, as if Fielder and Safdie weren’t sure what they ultimately wanted to accomplish beyond hours of oppressive claustrophobia in desperate search of release.