“Wait, wasn’t Willy Wonka the bad guy?”
It’s hard to think of a television star who has laid bare their soul as much as multi-hyphenate graduate from one of Canada’s top business schools (with really good grades), Nathan Fielder has. Yet it somehow still feels like we know so little about him. In both Comedy Central’s Nathan For You and last summer’s The Rehearsal for HBO, Fielder devises uber-addictive and clever reality show satires with poignant, melancholy underpinnings that suggest a subject and material at odds with itself.
The format of Nathan For You is an inherently exploitative one, pointing and laughing at the people naive enough to go along with Nathan’s asinine schemes, yet as the series drew to a close, it was Nathan himself who was the butt of the joke and subject. The Rehearsal went as far as having the subjects of the show accost Nathan for his manipulation and grappling with the consequences of a concept gone too far. It was a reflection of not only the harsh truths of reality television but also of the enigmatic hosts who conceptualize these vehicles of public, televised exploitation.
Nathan Fielder has long been accused of being too strange and too mean to be palatable to mainstream audiences and the bigger he’s gotten, the more polarized the response seems to have gotten, even with consistent critical praise and success. With his latest project The Curse, produced by A24 for Showtime, Nathan Fielder disguises his most provocative, self-reflective series yet in a polished narrative format that eludes any and all easy analysis.
In The Curse, we follow Asher (Fielder) and Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone), a newlywed couple leading a new HGTV series titled ‘Flipanthropy’ in which they develop and sell energy “passive” homes at high costs to bring affluent buyers to the small community of Española, New Mexico. Asher and Whitney, who have access to wealth via Whitney’s parents (Constance Shulman and Corbin Bernsen), think of themselves as bleeding-heart liberals who want no part in gentrifying the community and thus seek to give back to the working-class locals and twist themselves into knots rationalizing as to why their gentrification isn’t as bad. All the while Asher’s childhood friend and the producer and director of Flipanthropy, Dougie Schecter, played by Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) who also co-creates and writes The Curse, finds ways to find and poke holes in their marriage for the sake of reality TV drama.
Fielder’s latest all makes for intricately layered television in which a scene can veer from bizarre comedy to truly tense drama at the flip of a switch. The Curse is decidedly disorienting and still somehow cohesive and confident in the story it seeks to tell. We are so used to Nathan Fielder as a character in and of himself that it’s a bit strange to settle into Asher Siegel and the rhythms of the story at first, until you realize that this show is every bit as metatextual and revealing as anything else he’s ever done.
In the leading roles, Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone radiate the sort of awkward, nervy energy that permeates each and every scene with their desperation to be liked and given kudos for a brand of philanthropy that is condescending at best and thoroughly detestable at worst. Fielder is the hothead who can hardly even pretend to care about their mission statement and starts fires that Stone frantically attempts to put out before they burn their entire eco-conscious housing enterprise to the ground. Stone, with an increasingly excellent filmography and star power that propels any project that she is a part of, turns in one of the very best performances of her career, grounding even the most absurd moments of the series in emotional truth. Alongside the upcoming release of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, Stone is having a year unlike any other.
In the show’s very best moments, it’s Emma Stone’s desperate attempts at legitimizing the concept behind their ‘Flipanthropy’ HGTV show that reveal the raw nerves and uncomfortable truths of their faux philanthropy. Benny Safdie, most recently seen in his standout role in this summer’s Oppenheimer, plays the eccentrically flawed reality TV producer who pulls the strings in the background, orchestrating a different kind of show that further deepens the proceedings as not only an absurdist relationship dramedy and commentary on white neoliberalism, but the pitfalls of reality TV and how even a more “noble” concept can quickly spin into an ego trip.
Most compelling of perhaps anyone in the series, however, is Barkhad Abdi, best known for his award-winning turn in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. Abdi’s character and the way in which his story is woven throughout The Curse provide the very heart, soul, and thematic core of it all. It’s through his eyes that the show’s perspective on what we’re witnessing really takes shape and delivers perhaps the clearest summation yet of Nathan Fielder’s artistic purpose across all three of his television endeavors.
Self-proclaimed philanthropists, savvy self-help gurus, and life-changing reality TV do-gooders’ interest in helping others will always come at the cost of the agency of those in need. Asher and Whitney Siegel are here to help, on their terms, on their time, and for their ultimate benefit. You get the sense that this is not only a critique and lambasting of white liberal guilt run amok and the artificiality of reality TV, but also a continuation of Nathan Fielder’s own introspection and self-reckoning for the part he himself has played and the ethics of shows like Nathan For You and The Rehearsal.
The Curse is not only compelling in its wickedly dark humor and rich character drama but also in its sheer provocation and willingness to posit itself as a product of the very problems it seeks to discuss.