If you ask a very specific group of people, The Curse is the hottest show of the year. The Venn diagram of fans of Nathan Fielder and fans of the Safdie brothers is a circle, and this dark comedy, created by Fielder and Benny Safdie, benefits from a type of intriguing secrecy Fielder's projects are typically shrouded in. It adds a cool factor; it creates a sense of exclusivity. To watch and to get it is to be part of a club. Slap the A24 logo on it and you might even have yourself a hit. Projects with so much hype have the tendency to be disappointing when they actually make their way into the world. Luckily, no amount of hype can prepare you for how sincerely, refreshingly weird The Curse is, an unpredictable exercise in forcing its audience to let go of all expectations.
Fittingly, The Curse opens on a fabrication. Right away, we're introduced to the Siegels, Whitney (Emma Stone) and Asher (Fielder), who have adopted the classic tilted-head-furrowed-brow affectation of seasoned reality TV veterans as they speak with Fernando (Christopher Calderon), an unemployed local in Española, New Mexico, trying to support his ailing mother. Whitney pastes a big smile on her face to deliver what she deems "positive news," telling Fernando they've found a job for him at a new coffee shop in the area. When Fernando's mother fails to have an emotional response to this news, their producer Dougie (Benny Safdie) emerges from behind the camera to pour water on her face and blow menthol into her eyes. Whitney and Asher look mortified but watch in silence as he stages the reaction.
This opening sequence turns out to be one of Whitney and Asher's least embarrassing moments. They, the newly married couple behind Fliplanthropy, an HGTV pilot they're trying to spin into a full series order, are a classic pair of ethical gentrifiers: They've forced their way into the struggling community of Española and are attempting to transform it into an eco-friendly paradise by buying up foreclosed houses and turning them into "passive homes." Under Whitney's instruction, these houses, the exteriors of which consist of uncannily mirrored panels that allegedly help control temperature without the help of air conditioning or heating units, are impractical eyesores that look absurd in the neighborhoods they're being built in. She thinks of them as art, but it's clear from the looks on the Española residents' faces how they feel.
You immediately get the sense that this venture is Whitney's passion and Asher is merely along for the ride; the show makes a recurring gag out of her feeding him lines straight off an Instagram infographic, which he repeats with mindless dutifulness. Both are trying to untangle themselves from shady pasts — Whitney from her slumlord parents, Asher from his history working in casinos — and it all seems to be headed down the right track. That is, until Dougie tries to stage another TV moment by instructing Asher to give $100 to a young girl in a parking lot, only for Asher to take it back when he realizes he has no more cash on him. The girl, Nala (Hikmah Warsame), responds by telling Asher she's putting a curse on him. Later, while Asher and Whitney are busy arguing over the ethics of calling a curse a curse, their lives begin to implode.
The Curse, much like its characters, is trying to cover a lot of ground. Gentrification, racism in America, stolen land, class disparities, complicated marriage dynamics, complicated friendship dynamics, complicated parent-child dynamics, and the lie of reality TV are among the themes it touches on over its 10 episodes. It's a lot to squeeze into one show, but The Curse makes an honest effort at balancing all of its ideas. To varying degrees of success, it tries to widen its focus at several points to tell the stories of Española's other residents, like Nala's father, Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), and Fernando, but it doesn't devote quite enough time to them to say anything too meaningful.
The tone swings somewhere between comedy, drama, and horror, but the deployment of horror elements makes for some of the most exciting moments in the show — a terrifying scene involving Abshir in Episode 5 is genuinely hard to watch — and it's bolstered by the pervasive presence of the curse that may or may not exist. Fielder, who directs many of the episodes, is great at creating, mounting, and stretching out tension using nothing more than sly camerawork. Scenes are often framed through objects and windows, making everything seem as though it's being filtered through a funhouse mirror. Bodies are warped; faces are turned into grotesquely distorted images. Amped up by a spacey, synth-y score from composer John Medeski, the fear feels ever-present, even when you don't know what you're supposed to be afraid of. You just wish the show would lean into it more. The Curse clearly knows its strengths, but it's trying to do so much at once that it never fully commits to any of them.
What helps is that Stone, Safdie, and many of the supporting performances are sensational. As Whitney, a flailing girlboss whose desperation to be liked oozes out of the screen, Stone pulls off a high-wire act and it's a pleasure to watch her slide into such an unappealing, unshowy role. Whitney wants to be seen as a pillar of the community, but she's based her public persona on assuaging her own white guilt (a phrase she clearly learned through social media) in a way that reads as dishonest. Everything about her is fake — she even ripped off the design of the passive houses from another artist — but in later episodes, when Whitney's true self comes out, it's borderline villainous. And Safdie continues to enjoy his eccentric supporting character era, wearing Dougie's scraggly wig and big silver rings with aplomb, turning in a skeezy, secretive performance as he lopes around with a sinister agenda and barely concealed demons of his own. Abdi is a welcome addition, deftly playing a man trying to remain in control for the sake of his children, even as Whitney and Asher begin to impose on his life.
Asher, a feckless tryhard, is a fascinating and ridiculous character, though Fielder isn't as strong an actor as those who surround him. Some of his line deliveries, especially when they're being delivered to Stone and Safdie, who seem so at home in their roles, feel stilted in comparison. To the show's credit, The Curse integrates Fielder's signature awkwardness into the story. Focus groups watching Fliplanthropy don't like Asher; his wife barely likes him. He reviews recordings of conversations between himself and Whitney after they've happened, makes a list of funny things to say on camera, and is clearly insecure about his micropenis — which, if you can believe it, is a plot point. But Fielder is stronger when playing a version of himself, as he did in his past series Nathan for You and The Rehearsal, than he is when trying to reach the depths of a character.
There is so much to say about this dizzingly ambitious gem of a series, and yet saying too much would be doing the viewer a disservice (and defying Showtime's spoiler policy). As hack as it is to say about a TV show, it makes for a uniquely cinematic experience and one of the most original series of the year. Look no further than the characters staring into their own contorted reflections in the walls of the passive houses for proof that this is something special. Flaws and all, what a pleasure it is to see some absolutely twisted minds at the top of their game.
Premieres: The first episode premieres Friday, Nov. 10 on Paramount+ with Showtime, before airing Sunday, Nov. 12 at 10/9c on Showtime, with subsequent episodes debuting weekly
Who's in it: Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder, Benny Safdie, Barkhad Abdi
Who's behind it: Benny Safdie (co-creator and co-writer), Nathan Fielder (co-creator, co-writer, and director), Carrie Kemper (writer)
For fans of: The films of Safdie brothers, the shows of Nathan Fielder
How many episodes we watched: 10 of 10