Ostensibly, Showtime’s bleak new comedy The Curse is about, well, a curse. Nathan Fielder’s first series since 2022’s The Rehearsal sees him leave behind the reality format to spoof it in scripted fashion. Here, he joins forces with fellow master of discomfort viewing Benny Safdie, with whom Fielder wrote the show, to send up feel-good home renovation series. Fielder stars as Asher Siegel, who, along with his wife, Whitney (Emma Stone), is on a quest to kick off what the couple calls the “passive house revolution,” a construction method that is part eco-friendly gumption (reduced energy consumption) and part woo-woo magical thinking (surreal Doug Aitken–style mirror siding). To accomplish this, the Siegels set their sights on launching an HGTV show to showcase the homes in their adopted, pointedly rough-around-the-edges home of Española, New Mexico. (Sample TripAdvisor discourse: an eight-year-long debate in response to the question “Is Espanola a dangerous place?” that rotates between tales of brawls at Chili’s and impassioned defenses.)
Then Asher angers the wrong little girl, who informs him that he is now cursed, and things swiftly go excruciatingly, mesmerizingly awry in classic Fielder fashion. I’d argue that the real tension, however, is in watching the Siegels’ elaborate value system—one that a certain cable news network might be inclined to describe as “woke”—crumple piece by piece. The Siegels represent a richly painted satire of conscientious do-gooderism: Whitney, for example, is the sort of person to sharply correct her husband when he says “homeless” instead of “unhoused” or to use clumsy Spanish to praise the food at a local restaurant.
It’s well meaning—or at least the Siegels think that it is. Much of the joy of The Curse is watching as the pair try and fail to square their bleeding-heart sympathies with the reality that those hearts might not be completely in the right place. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to force a client’s terminally ill mother to feign weeping with on-camera joy via a choice blast of menthol to the eyes—but they did a good thing by getting her son a job, right? And, OK, maybe working at a tenuously extant coffee shop isn’t the best job in the world, or one particularly likely to change the family’s circumstances—but it’s still a net positive, surely. And, well, what was Asher supposed to do—not tell the staff member at the transitional housing center that the people he was looking for were Black? The staffer’s admission that the facility has the funds to stay open only a few nights a week, of course, never prompts Asher to consider that there might be better uses for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s borrowed from Whitney’s real-estate developer–slash–slumlord dad than buying more houses and polishing the HGTV pilot.
All in all, it makes for a wildly, delightfully uncomfortable dressing down of a certain breed of moneyed class anxiety. The Siegels drive a Tesla (for the environment!) and sup on preprepared frozen delivery meals (with lightly exotic recipes!). Whitney doesn’t just wear Birkenstocks—she wears the specific model that was written up in The New York Times. You can imagine a few more conspicuous acquisitions that surely must lurk off-screen: the Peloton, the Nano Puff Jacket, the Eames chair, the Alison Roman cookbook, the stylized map of a faraway subway system, the Duolingo subscription. Were they to split up, they might consciously uncouple.
Which makes HGTV a perfect foil. Many HGTV hits, particularly those dedicated to flipping properties (versus the other pervasive HGTV plot, buyers landing their ultimate dream home), feature a glimpse at the abodes’ previous life. Rare was the episode of Flip or Flop or Good Bones that didn’t feature Christina Hall or Mina Starsiak Hawk, respectively, walking through a newly acquired house—often one obtained via auction after a foreclosure—and sniffing with distaste at the detritus left behind by the last occupants: unmade beds, half-full closets, refrigerators still stocked with spoiled groceries.
Those shows, of course, want you to think about what comes at the end of the hour—the new hardwood floors, the white walls, the open floor plans—and not the story that came before: one where residents lived in squalor or were forced out in such a hurry that they left their belongings behind. Those people, probably, weren’t in a position to weigh the benefits of mid-century-modern pendant lighting at their next home, but that’s a significantly thornier story.
As a comedian, Fielder excels at letting awkwardness balloon until it collapses into its own black hole of embarrassment, confusion, and plain-old weirdo laughs. Both The Rehearsal and his earlier docuseries, Nathan for You, largely consisted of him taking a joke—help a guy deal with an irksome pub trivia teammate, or a woman decide whether she wants to have kids—to outlandish extremes, with Fielder turning his earnestness all the way up (or at least pretending to). In The Curse, his and Stone’s characters really are that earnest about all those wholesome beliefs in lifting up communities and giving back—at least until they aren’t.
Early in The Curse’s first episode, a reporter asks the Siegels to break down how exactly their show will help Española—a central claim of the show they’ve dubbed Flipanthropy as well as of many real HGTV shows. Won’t buying up houses and turning them into flashy architectural monuments put them outside the budgets of many locals? she asks. Wouldn’t an influx of new, wealthy buyers spur gentrification? Hardly, Asher says as he grimaces at what he calls “the g-word,” insisting that everyone can be a winner.
The reporter knows it’s a hollow promise, as does the viewer. For now, the Siegels seem to be in the dark, true believers that if they talk the talk of their lofty ideals long and loud enough, they’ll walk the walk, too. But it feels like just a matter of time till it all comes crashing down like so many mirrored walls.