Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems, Good Time) returns to the A24 universe, this time with Nathan Fielder (Nathan for You, The Rehearsal) and Emma Stone (La La Land, Easy A) in tow, for Showtime’s newest series, The Curse. This unusually bizarre dramedy focuses on a wealthy couple whose HGTV show, Flipanthropy, appears primed for success with the help of an unhinged editor. As filming commences on their episodes, virtually every hot button issue rears its ugly head—from colonization, to racism, to gender dynamics, sexual inadequacy, a white savior complex, poverty, and “going green.” A meandering and downright puzzling attempt at social commentary leaves The Curse feeling emptier than a witch’s spellbook with all its pages torn out.
The primary aim of The Curse seems to be in peeling back the layers of phony emotion prevalent in so many reality TV shows—at least in its initial, semi-coherent first few episodes. Flipanthropy is something of a misnomer. In actuality, neither Asher (Fielder) nor Whitney (Stone) are flipping any houses. Rather, their goal is to “rejuvenate distressed homes to have a positive impact on the community.” This means no pesky air conditioning units, eco-friendly paint, and a willingness to embrace low-emission appliances.
Their hometown of Espinola could be the first ever entirely carbon-neutral city. In addition to helping people live greener lives, Asher and Whitney make a commitment to donate a portion of each home sale into subsidized rents and affordable housing. It all sounds quite lovely in theory, but there’s one major problem: no one wants to watch a show without any actual conflict. Editor extraordinaire Dougie (Safdie) could be the key to a palatable version of Flipanthropy, stoking the flames of marital unrest from the sidelines.
In the first episode of the series (and subsequently, the best), The Curse sets up its titular curse with an obnoxiously mean move from Asher. Per Dougie’s instructions, he approaches black child Nala (Hikmah Warsame) and gives her a $100 bill to stage a scene of his character being “generous.” Being that this was the only bill on him, after the cameras stop rolling, he asks for it back, offering to change it out for a smaller one. Nala’s sister and father (Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips, Blade Runner 2049) both nearby, get involved, just as Nala simply tells Asher, “I curse you.” Did Nala actually curse them, or are they making assumptions based on her race and background?
At first, Whitney grows obsessed with the idea that Asher left things this way with Nala without resolving it. Asher in particular struggles to make amends, and tries to track down the girl and her family to fix his mistakes, or at the very least own up to them. If this “curse” was supposed to be the primary catalyst for the ultimate change in their lives, why then does it end up feeling so inconsequential once the hour-long series goes about approaching its endgame? Perhaps the spark of an idea for this show in the first place was one thing, yet as the narrative expanded deeper, the creators pivoted? Whatever the case, this element feels half-baked, and entirely unsatisfying. Showrunners Safdie and Fielder probably should have made this either a full-length feature, or a miniseries. At ten full episodes, The Curse feels drawn out laboriously, and overstuffed with filler.
In theory, The Curse should be an easy homerun. With the level of talent assembled, the performances are automatically going to be of an impressive quality; Emma Stone in particular is quite good as Whitney. However, nearly every character verges on despicable in one way or another. The question of whether or not Asher and Whitney are actually helping any of these people comes up many times, albeit subtly. In the first couple episodes, the strangeness of the tertiary characters comes across somewhat endearing, if needlessly explicit. Whitney’s parents (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman), two “slumlords” who take the opposite approach in the housing market, initially appear to be out of the picture, but it ends up being one more thing Whitney lies to the camera about. Asher and Whitney’s father bond over their micropenises, or in Asher’s case, just a very small one; her father dubs them the “cherry tomato boys.” Dougie’s entire storyline just seems teed up to make him into a drunken douchebag hungry for drama.
Even with plotting issues, awkward attempts at cringe-comedy, and easy-to-hate characters, The Curse does occasionally work. Whitney embraces changing the tone of Flipanthropy once it becomes clear that there are issues with its straightforward nature. The relationship between Whitney and Asher intrigues, thanks to the chemistry between Fielder and Stone. A tonal juggling act hits the mark every so often, particularly in the specific case of Flipanthropy. I have little doubt that The Curse will be able to find an audience. The pedigree of its cast and creatives all but ensures that A24’s newest television experiment will at the very least find its way to the general public. The Curse isn’t as actively offensive or downright awful as A24’s previous television effort, The Idol. Perhaps their next will be more ecologically sound.
Sign on the dotted line for a “certified passive” home—and a veritable plague of issues—when The Curse premieres for all Showtime and Paramount+ with Showtime subscribers on Friday, November 10, 2023, before making its on-air debut to Showtime on November 12. Its first three episodes debuted at New York Film Festival.