The Trick of The Curse

If someone asked you to describe what exactly Nathan Fielder does, what would you say? Social experiments or performance art or — if I was trying really hard to be reductive — expensive prank videos? Is it cinematic? Or is it a new, metamodern flavor of reality television wrapped up in as many layers of irony and self-awareness as pretty much everything else? For as much as his work is applauded, analyzed, memed and cringed at, it’s so difficult to clearly define what Fielder is making and his role in all of it. But I think that’s very much intentional. It’s a cornerstone of the Nathan Fielder persona. Blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction is subject, style and character in both Nathan For You and The Rehearsal, and you would be correct in assuming that his latest project keeps on smudging those lines.  

2023’s The Curse is a first-time collaboration between Fielder and Benny Safdie, who has been on his own hot streak recently — starring in Oppenheimer this past year and co-directing Uncut Gems in 2019. I’m still mourning the recent Safdie brothers breakup.  But The Curse seems like a match made in heaven given their shared obsession with realism and penchant for making audiences squirm. As if that wasn’t enough firepower, they also brought in Academy Award-winner Emma fucking Stone to play one of the lead roles. Since the show was announced in 2020 with all of the billboards, first looks and talk show appearances, the hype train could not be stopped. 

The Curse follows the recently-married luxury-home-building eco-activist power couple Whitney (Stone) and Asher (Fielder) Siegel neck deep in production of their HGTV reality show Fliplanthropy. The show within the show is almost as ambitious as the show itself. In Fliplanthropy, the Siegels attempt to build the eco-friendliest 'passive' homes that are also architectural art pieces, educating the masses on green living and offsetting the damage done by their — please don’t say it — gentrification of the surrounding community in Española, New Mexico. Meanwhile, they're addressing ongoing Native American land disputes, plopping local Native American art on statement shelves, and making sure they come across as warm and funny and effortlessly genuine. 

In the opening scene of the pilot episode, Whitney and Asher are filming an interview with a local named Fernando and his elderly mother. Fernando has fallen on hard times, and once the cameras start rolling, Whitney and Asher reveal that they will give Fernando a job. Cue heartstrings. But wait. Show producer and Asher’s childhood friend Dougie (Safdie) interrupts the interview; Fernando’s mom isn’t giving him enough and this moment needs a little something extra. He grabs a bottle of water and some menthol. Real fake tears.

Right out the gate, The Curse starts peeling away the layers of artifice inherent in television and film production, and specifically in Fielder’s wheelhouse — reality television. The show has a lot of fun with this, frequently giving us glimpses of the Fliplanthropy rough cut amidst the behind-the-scenes chaos, with Whitney, Asher and Dougie frequently discussing the version of Fliplanthropy the audience is also seeing. There’s something so inviting and unsettling about this stylistic conceit, the oscillation between the Fliplanthropy reality and the real reality. We are invited to participate in the filmmaking process, but becoming increasingly aware of the ways we are being manipulated. 

The line between two realities is quickly established with a visual choice. That distinct HGTV style — multicam coverage, bright and highly saturated, and a whole bunch of B roll — is replicated quite faithfully. The real reality is shot much differently. The image is desaturated and grainy, usually shot in excruciatingly long takes with telephoto and zoom lenses. Conversations are framed with foreground obstructions, from different rooms, through windows and mirrors. It feels like we’re watching something we’re not supposed to be watching, scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor, especially for a show like Fliplanthropy. At the end of the pilot, just as you’re settling into these visual rules, there’s a moment where Asher is in Dougie’s hotel room watching the rough cut and he looks directly into camera. The camera reactively tilts down to avoid his gaze. The rules are broken. The lines are blurred. 

From then on, The Curse does all that it can to throw you off balance. Unlike Fliplanthropy, nothing is off limits. Religion, politics, marital strife, Whitney’s slumlord parents, Asher’s cuck fantasies, micropenises. (Micropeni?) So many threads are dangled and tangled in front of your eyes it’s hard to keep track of what this story is even about. Hell, the titular curse is set up like a side plot, happening while Asher and Dougie are very literally getting B roll for Fliplanthropy. And as Whitney and Asher are struggling to maintain the image of themselves they are projecting through their show, the artifice of their real relationship becomes more and more exposed. 

In episode 3, it becomes unclear whether or not Fliplanthropy will be greenlit for a full season. There’s a scene where Whitney is struggling to take off her sweater due to a faulty zipper so she asks Asher for help, and the two have a seemingly genuine moment. There’s a struggle to take off the sweater, some flirtation, a lot of laughter, and the two are working together for the first time in a while. “This is us, Ash,” Whitney says as she winds down from the laughs. “I wish the network could see this.” They try to replicate this moment while Whitney records with her phone, but fail horribly. The sweater slips right off. Looks fake. Unfunny. Asher’s joke doesn’t work. It’s so painful to watch. Eventually, the two get into a heated argument, forgetting that Whitney’s phone is still recording, and they both call it for the night. Whitney watches the video, then deletes it. 

Where is that line between the real and the rest? Over and over throughout the course of the show, Fielder and Safdie are constantly jumping the line, but rather than pinpointing where exactly it is, everything just gets more blurry. The plot and conflict keep getting messier, but it’s that sense of hyperrealism — the inability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s artificial — keeps us locked in a state of unease. It’s unrelenting. And the characters are right there with us. Asher is struggling to determine if he actually is a good person, or if he’s just pretending to be, while Whitney doubts if she’s still in love with Asher, or if she ever really loved him at all. They are forced to peel back their own layers of bullshit and see what's underneath. 

I don’t know how well this show is liked or how many people have or will watch it. You never know these days. But The Curse's eventual legacy seems pretty clear. The finale. 

If the first nine episodes bounce on the line between reality and artifice, then the finale sprouts wings and flies away. It ascends. It is visceral, emotional and surreal. It’s that realization that the relationship you’re in is doomed. Sometimes, a break up — and I don’t think it necessarily has to be romantic — feels like an external force pulling two people apart. And we try to resist and argue and prolong, partially because we don’t want this thing to end, but also because we’re afraid of what happens when it does. But that truth is unavoidable, and it feels like being sucked out of a porthole into the vacuum of space. And while you’re out there floating on your own, you question whether it was real or not, and that answer might be a little blurry. 

Written by Roberto Ramirez

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