In the new Showtime series The Curse, spouses-cum-real-estate-disruptors Asher and Whitney Siegel (Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone) set out to save the environment with carbon-neutral “passive houses” that generate as much energy as they use. An entirely mirrored exterior captures sunlight and converts it to power — though a technician mentions that this could be accomplished with less conspicuous siding — while symbolically reflecting back the community of New Mexican border suburb Española, an idea Whitney insists she did not steal from an artist who did the same thing in the woods.
Never mind that sticking gigantic mirrors in the desert redirects blinding beams of light toward all who pass them, or that birds keep killing themselves by flying into its hard-to-see walls. The prohibitive cost of this solution intended for low-income locals makes it impractical to anybody but the wealthy, which Ash and Whit offset using the budget from their in-development HGTV pilot Flipanthropy as a stopgap fix. This won’t help much with the bigger problem, but for the sake of their camera, the appearance of having done something counts for more than actually doing it.
The difference between real and fake things has long nipped at the back of Fielder’s mind – an idea he’s locked onto with laser focus over the past decade. In Nathan For You, he played a self-parody with nothing on the inside, trying to fill a hollow life with elaborate ruses constructed for — or at the expense of — normal people; The Rehearsal filled a studio soundstage and a plot of land with hermetically sealed artifice, a facsimile of real life undermined by the total mediation of the unruly, unpredictable factors that make us human. Aided by a fully-scripted format at once eschewing the fiction/nonfiction hybridization of these early works and thematically addressing it, The Curse expands scope to throw a thin coat of betterment over an entire town or perhaps America, positing the empty theatre of goodwill outreach as a defining piece of the national heritage.
That Whit and Ash’s morally specious schemes put them at awkward, exploitative angles with the area’s Latino and Black populations joins Fielder’s interests with those of co-creator Benny Safdie (who also dons an unsightly goatee as the ethically bankrupt producer of the show within the show), dedicated assessor of how much misbehavior white people can get away with under cover of privilege. Amidst some admirably bizarre set pieces involving micropenises and cuckoldry fetishism, the series mines humor from the tension between liberal pieties and the difficulty — some economically unavoidable, some self-inflicted out of pettiness or cowardice — of putting them into practice.
This couple is undone by their vanity, the financial and personal imperative to be seen performing virtue that drives them to turn a camera on themselves. They can gussy up the pig of capitalism with as much charitable lipstick as they like, but the footage mercilessly punctures their image of themselves as decent people and tantalizes them with the option of sanitization through editing. Though the elisions and selective framings still leave behind an unsettling phoniness, as in the excruciating showstopper that sees Whit try in vain to recreate a candid moment of funny intimacy with Ash from a minute earlier for her Instagram following.
The mirrors on their houses distort faces into Cubist mockeries, showing the inner deformities of character that worsen as this pair of halfhearted humanitarians commit to their doomed bit. It’s a telling flourish, and representative of an overall tone close to eerie surrealism, conveyed most palpably by the sinuous, foreboding music courtesy of Safdie regular Daniel Lopatin. More than an incisive deconstruction of reality TV or a critique of incentive-chasing green developing initiatives, more than a diamond of demented hilarity, it’s a major leap forward for the most vital artist currently on the small screen.
Published 18 Oct 2023
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