Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s works have always been excruciating in the best way. The Safdie brothers’ films, including Good Time and Uncut Gems, feature characters who hurl themselves at self-destruction in hopes of finding salvation, chaotically barrelling their way through a madcap, adrenalized world for the movies’ entire run-times. Watching them feels like having a bare hand grip your heart tightly in your chest. Fielder’s works are meta, alienating, and complex, and his 2022 project The Rehearsal is a dizzying, singular masterpiece that defies every attempt at categorization. Together, the two should form a dream team, yet The Curse is one of the biggest TV disappointments of the year. Plodding and pointless, the new genre-bending Showtime series is excruciating in all the worst ways.
Co-creators Fielder and Safdie star in The Curse, as does Emma Stone, whose performance as driven, self-important home designer and would-be HGTV host Whitney is one of the series’ redeeming qualities. Fielder plays Whitney’s new husband Asher, a man who vacillates between a sense of impotent rage, moral vacuousness, and kicked-dog sweetness. His most hammered-home character trait is that he’s aggressively, painfully unfunny (he also has a tiny penis, a fact that the show is fixated on and attempts to glean great meaning from). When the series begins, this unusual, insufferable couple is attempting to launch a series about transforming a small Southwestern town through metallic-walled “passive homes” and a series of seemingly generous anti-racist gestures towards members of the largely non-white community.
The problem here isn’t that the pair is insufferable and deeply hypocritical, which they are, but that they are far more unbearable than the show is watchable. Any satirical insight audiences might get from watching Asher and Whitney fumble their way through their insidious attempts to build a model town fade long before the show’s stretched-out 10 hour runtime. How long are we willing to watch the minute details of awful peoples’ surprisingly tensionless lives? Eventually, one gets too exhausted to cringe.
There are strange and surreal undercurrents to The Curse that make up some semblance of an overarching plot. Early on, Asher becomes convinced that he was cursed by a young girl after taking back a 100 dollar bill he gave her on camera, and the show plays around with the idea of a possible curse (which mostly just seems to come from Asher’s racist superstitions) in fits and starts. Safdie’s character, a wildly unlikable producer named Dougie, is also curious about the curse, and the show spends a lot of time employing horror movie filmmaking techniques – slow, dread-filled zooms, uneasy long shots, mirrored images – that convince us something major is about to happen.
Something major does eventually happen, but after being conditioned to expect major genre switches and surprises from Fielder – and primed to anticipate the worst by The Curse itself – the eventual switch-up feels more baffling than compelling. For the majority of its ample runtime, the show seems most interested in the miniscule headaches of liberal policy-making; massive portions of each episode are devoted to Whitney getting into the weeds about Indigenous land rights, the over-policing of people of color, sustainability, and more. She establishes herself early on as an exaggerated person of the worst bougie do-gooder you know, so after the first few episodes, there’s not much to be gained from these tedious deep dives into her self-righteous, attention-hungry attempts at creating an obviously doomed utopia. At times, The Curse seems to mistake dwelling in discomfort for actually saying something.
If the show has redeeming qualities, they come largely from its talented cast. Stone plays Whitney with a forced smile, the millisecond faltering of which tells us everything we need to know about her state of mind. She’s acting on a microscopic level here, inventing new ways to grimace with just her eyes or to communicate white fragility with just the tilt of her head. Fielder’s character doesn’t coalesce quite as well as hers, but he earns some of the show’s biggest laughs with his deadpan delivery of lines like “I was ready to take a bullet for you.” The Curse’s lax, borderline self-indulgent edit doesn’t do Fielder any favors by forcing audiences to spend way too much time watching Asher be off-putting, but the comedian actually grows more compelling as the show wears on.
The series’ brightest spot is Nizhonniya Austin, the Diné/Tlingit actress and artist who plays a local Indigenous artist, Cara, who Whitney essentially attempts to use as an accessory. Whitney constantly asks favors of Cara and pushes herself into the much more talented woman’s orbit whenever possible, but Austin plays Cara as an unflappable and often purposely inscrutable figure onto whom her white “friend” can’t help but project. There are shades of amusement, anger, hurt, and annoyance in her performance, but they’re all walled up behind a practiced, neutral exterior – one that Whitney can’t help but bounce herself off of at every opportunity.
The Curse isn’t as interested in Cara as it is in the repulsive foibles of its white leads, which are examined at length for far too long. It’s not subtle enough to work as a horror story, not funny enough to work as a comedy, and not meta enough to keep its dozens of uncomfortable interactions compelling. Maybe the real curse was the time we wasted along the way.