Recap: The Curse (S1, Ep1) — Nathan Fielder’s First Step Into Fiction Is Brilliant, Beautiful and Quietly Terrifying
In my mind, a difference between non-fiction and fictional television is that the former is about asking a question and the latter is about answering one. Comedian(?) Nathan Fielder is more interested in non-fiction, as demonstrated by his shows Nathan for You and The Rehearsal. The question posed in the former is more focused—"Can I convince business owners to take my bad advice?"—and the answer tends to be yes. The Rehearsal is essentially a question about Nathan For You, asking "did I have the right to do that?" And there, the resolution is ambiguous. With his first fictional show, The Curse, Fielder finally offers an answer to The Rehearsal's question—and the answer is no.
I had no idea what to expect from Fielder after last year's deeply unsettling The Rehearsal, but whatever I was thinking, it wasn't this. The Curse follows couple Asher (Fielder) and Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone) as they work on Flipanthropy, their HGTV show that claims to be about helping a heavily Latino community in New Mexico but is really about gentrifying the area. Like all good premieres, the opening sets the stage for what the show (The Curse) will really be about. The Siegels interview a man who got a job with one of their sponsors in order to pay for his cancer-stricken mother's treatment. Slimy producer Dougie (Benny Safdie) insists that she needs to be weeping with happiness, so he waters her eyes as he lamely mumbles about how "my aunt had cancer once."
The exploitation of the non-white working class is a big theme throughout "The Land of Enchantment." The big event of the episode (and, judging by the title, possibly the series) is when Asher gives a hundred dollar bill to a little Black girl selling sodas in a parking lot "just for being you." Of course, this is just for B-roll and he takes it back as soon as the shot is over. The girl "curses" him and leaves before he can compensate her with a twenty from a nearby ATM, and that seems to be that.
But of course it's not. Whitney freaks out when she sees the footage and demands that Asher gives the girl the hundred dollars, so he drives down to the local homeless shelter (of course he thinks she's homeless) and searches to no avail. He takes the easy way out and gives the money to the nearest person living on the street that will take it, promising Whitney upon his returning that the girl took the money and lifted the curse.
Both Fielder and Stone have a lot to work with in "Land." The earliest example of how fantastically acted this show is comes with the interview scene, where a reporter mentions Whitney's slumlord parents and Asher snaps. Themes aside, a knowledge of Fielder's earlier shows is helpful, as seeing him express negative emotions other than "awkward" and "vaguely sad" here is strikingly uncomfortable. The natural way he overlaps his sentences with the reporter is really eerie, and even more so is Stone's unfaltering smile as she tilts her head awkwardly back and forth towards who's talking. Neither of them are overdoing it and yet they're both penetrative, doing a lot with a little.
And make no mistake, this show is extremely funny. Fielder's social inability translates from reality to fiction to great effect—look no further than the ATM scene, where his ramblings about not wanting to share his PIN with the irritated guy trying to help him is both funny and uncomfortable. Or if you want to look further (but it's kind of gross, so why would you?), watch Asher's father-in-law Paul (Corbin Bernsen) ramble about penis size while pissing on his tomato plants. Or if you want to look even further (don't), watch the Siegels act out their cuckold roleplay in a house that, in the very next shot, they cheerfully show off to a Flipanthropy subject.
The episode also has incredible directing, with Fielder effortlessly utilizing a talent I didn't know he had. The featured image in this article is just one example of how fantastic this show looks. Another memorable shot is in the scene where Asher promises Whitney that the curse is lifted, which is shot through a hotel door's peephole and literally presents his lie in a murky light. (There's a repeated motif with the Siegels shown in or alongside reflective surfaces like mirrors and windows—likely a reference to who their show is really about.) John Medeski's synth-laden score is subtle and dark, adding unnerving ambience to every scene featuring it.
The first episode of The Curse is a total success on all fronts. It has outstanding directing, amazing performances, and is full of biting commentary and self-criticism. Is this some sort of apology for Nathan for You? Not really. Fielder has never presented himself as the type to apologize for his work, as shown in The Rehearsal's season finale. But maybe The Curse is his acknowledgement that his shows play into the most predatory aspects of reality television, the ones that feed on the overlooked and spit out their lives as easily digestible crap, and it's also his way of pushing back, of exposing how insidious these shows can truly be. It's like Whitney says as she and Asher stare uncomfortably at the sick woman while Dougie fakes her tears. "It's a little TV magic for you."
This episode of The Curse is now available to stream on Paramount+ and Showtime.
Sam Layton is a Chicago suburb native that's trying his best to make a career out of his (probably unhealthy) habit of watching too much television. When he's not working as the Third Coast Review's current sole TV reviewer, he's making his way through college or, shockingly, watching too much television.