“The Curse” lives up to the expectations of edginess and intelligence that come with its creators, Nathan Fielder, known for his experimental work on “The Rehearsal,” and the actor-indie filmmaker Benny Safdie, who stars alongside Emma Stone. This series, on the surface a satire about a married couple producing a home-improvement pilot in Espanola, New Mexico, takes a fascinating dive into the complexities of television, relationships, privilege, and trust. Its wry humor punctuates the narrative, providing moments of levity in an intentionally off-kilter storyline.
Fielder and Stone portray Asher and Whitney Siegel, who aspire to become the next household names in home improvement, akin to Chip and Joanna Gaines. Their show, “Philanthropy,” is designed not only to bring them fame but also to create jobs and eco-friendly housing solutions for a community grappling with unemployment and gentrification. The first three episodes, showcased at the New York Film Festival, venture beyond this premise, delving into the artificiality of television, interpersonal duplicity, white privilege, and trust issues, all while maintaining a subversive sense of humor. “The Curse” is the kind of comedy that surprises viewers, providing amusing distractions from its deliberately unconventional narrative.
This tone aligns with Fielder’s disconcertingly meta approach, as seen in “The Rehearsal,” where he guided people through rehearsals for future events, causing speculation about whether the individuals involved were actors. Ambiguity is a central theme, and Asher, a classic Fielder character, embodies this enigmatic quality. He is a bumbling, downtrodden figure with a hidden vein of anger and callousness.
Whitney, portrayed by Emma Stone, initially appears composed, unflappable, and sincere, in stark contrast to Asher’s awkward and self-centered nature. Yet, Stone’s performance hints at a synthetic quality in Whitney, whose depths and motivations remain shrouded in mystery. Stone’s transition from Hollywood stardom to serious artistic pursuits is evident, as she has three projects at the New York Film Festival alone. Her portrayal of Whitney, alongside her roles in “Poor Things” and “Bleat,” displays an enigmatic quality that runs through all three characters.
Benny Safdie, known for his work in gritty independent films like “Uncut Gems,” takes on the role of Dougie, Asher and Whitney’s producer. In stark contrast to his typical roles, Dougie, with his disheveled appearance, delivers some of the series’ most humorous moments. He embodies the worst traits of reality television, amusingly orchestrating fake emotions for a camera-shy participant.
The series opens with a voyeuristic perspective, peering into the lives of interviewees through windows and mysterious peepholes, setting a tone that subtly persists throughout subsequent episodes. Various subplots interweave, including jokes about small penises, Asher’s attempts to gather incriminating evidence from a casino, and the couple’s effort to engage a Native American artist as an unpaid consultant without appearing exploitative.
A prevailing theme throughout is the notion of a curse. Asher’s encounter with a young girl selling soda cans leads to an exchange of $100 for the appearance of philanthropy on camera, but when he retracts the money, the girl utters a mysterious curse. Whether it’s a TikTok meme or something more ominous remains uncertain.
By the third episode, “The Curse” deepens and darkens. The series questions why Dougie is in tears, becoming more self-aware about issues of race, prejudice, and condescension. The initial unease surrounding the portrayal of Native Americans and a child’s curse gives way to a heated argument about race between Asher and Whitney. Regardless of the direction of the next seven episodes, “The Curse” has already established itself as one of the most intricately crafted and brilliantly acted shows of the year.