It was about time HGTV got the dark biting satire the network seems so perfectly tailored for. Those ready-made gentrifying and style-flattening house flipping shows were clearly overdue for a smart send-up. And with Showtime’s The Curse, we may have finally gotten one that’s as biting as it is absurd. For what else would one expect from Nathan Fielder (The Rehearsal) and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems)?
We are in, as the show’s pilot informs us, “Land Of Enchantment.” Namely, Española, a city that, if Asher and Whitney Seigel (Fielder and Emma Stone) get their way, will be the next Santa Fe. Which is to say, the next big destination for folks who love themselves buzzwords like “net zero structures” and “passive housing.” That’s what Asher and Whitney are staking in this city, hoping to build community (and no doubt line their pockets) as they flip houses with eco-living in mind. That means, in the warped world of The Curse, building houses whose exterior walls are wholly reflective: The Siegel’s house has the look of a fun house mirrored creation that’s as creepy as it is entrancing.
I know what you’re thinking: How can their project of uplifting the local community, by funding and partnering with retail stores and coffee shops, square with a viable financial model that’s sure to raise rents for all involved and likely price many residents out? That’s but one of the questions motivating The Curse, which soon reveals that there is more to the Siegels than meets the eye.
For starters, the two are shooting a pilot for their own HGTV show, Flipanthropy (!)—a calling card of sorts that will follow their journey as they bring Española into 21st century sustainable living. Only, as Safdie’s Dougie (the show’s producer) soon realizes, that kind of talk may not make for the best reality TV. Not the kind he’d like to make. Or watch. It’s why he’s constantly trying to orchestrate some punchy moments—like getting a local woman suffering from cancer to cry on cue on camera with the help of some menthol and water.
Whitney, whose self-righteousness is only matched by her aggressively sunny demeanor, is appalled. (“That was disgusting and disgraceful,” she says.) She’s intent on doing good. On being good. As is Asher, I guess, though he’s more sympathetic to Dougie’s concerns. “HGTV trusts him and we trust HGTV,” he pleads.
That’s how we first meet the Siegels. And soon enough, we’ll see how their picture perfect facades will soon crack under pressure, most pointedly during a local news interview where questions about Whitney’s parents (accused of being slumlords; how does that fit in with their boastful plans for Española’s affordable housing ideals?) derail the scripted talking points the couple was intent on getting on air about their “holistic home philosophy.” Asher loses it, humiliates the reporter, and guarantees they’ll get negative coverage. Unless, of course, they offer her some juicy news story she’d rather pursue instead.
Which brings us to the moment that will haunt the Siegels for, what we assume, is the rest of the series: As Asher waits to give some dirt to the reporter on some shady casino dealings, he’s nudged by Dougie to do a good deed by giving to a young girl selling cans of soda in a parking lot. He only has a hundred dollar bill, which he dutifully gives her (this makes for a great scene on camera!) and, once satisfied with the footage, he goes to get his money back. That goes as disastrously as you’d expect, and the young Black girl, emboldened, curses him. Yes. She says those words: “I CURSE YOU!”
Asher, awkward and doltish as he seems, believes that if he could just give her a $20 bill, he’d be fine. But no one has change and the ATM in that one store isn’t working. (Can’t he just let that one helpful guy help him by telling him what his pin number is? No. No, he cannot.). By the time he gets cash, the girl and her cursing ways are gone. Oh well. He brushes it off and then proceeds to maybe successfully get the reporter off their backs (granted he offers her some more tangible proof of what he’s talking about in a few days’ time).
If you thought the show couldn’t get any weirder—and given that it’s shot like a blend of a mockumentary and a voyeuristic horror film, and scored accordingly by Daniel Lopatin (aka OPN)—then you couldn’t have foreseen small penises becoming a key plot point. Before we watch Whitney’s parents (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman) fumble their way through a dinner with Asher and Whitney, we get to see (IN CLOSE UP!) Asher holding his member as he pees. That alone may have been a throwaway moment if Whitney’s father didn’t then corner him into talking about how he and his wife navigated that very same issue (he calls them the “cherry tomato boys”!!), all while also showing us what he’s packing. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and perfectly in line with Fielder and Safdie’s discomfiting sense of humor.
Thankfully, both Asher and Whitney can laugh about said encounter in the car on the way home. Seems the only thing that rankles them is when Whitney watches back the footage of Asher and the little cursing girl. She’s rattled; she demands he find her and have her reverse the curse. Which he tries…quite unsuccessfully, learning a bit about the town’s homeless (sorry, unhoused, as Whitney reminds him) population. Not that he fesses up to his failure.
And so we arrive at the central tensions of The Curse: Will Asher and Whitney be able to successfully drive up land prices in Española in time to make a profit on all those lots they’re snapping off? Will Dougie find a way to wedge his way in between Asher and Whitney to create more titillating HGTV-type content? More importantly: Are they really cursed and what will come of it given that Asher has now lied to Whitney telling her he absolutely had that all sorted out?
Fielder leaves us with the image of Asher staring out into the void. Perhaps he knows the unspeakable and uncomfortable events that are sure to follow him and Whitney’s lives in Española. But I also wonder if he’s not still thinking about his chicken-less chicken penne that he was so intent on getting a refund for and which preoccupied him more than anything else that took place this episode. Likely both, no?
- Flipanthropy is such an absurd title for an HGTV show I’m surprised it hadn’t already been taken!
- Of course Asher and Whitney drive a Tesla. (Though if we want to talk about which of their belongings I’m most obsessed with, that would easily have to be Whitney’s sun sweater. Easily.)
- Stone and Fielder make for a particularly well-matched pair. Sure, is he basically playing a version of himself? Yes. But that just makes Stone’s tightly-wound wife all the more intriguing. You just know she’s one eye twitch away from going fully unhinged.
- Okay, we do really need to talk about Love To The Third Degree, which may well be the most believable (if WTF) fake reality TV show since 3o Rock’s MILF Island. It’s giving big The Swan vibes (Google it and bask in the horrid splendor that was early 2000s reality television) and, just like Whitney, I am horrified (but also, like Asher, only slightly intrigued).
- I know it was (mostly) played for laughs, but you have to appreciate a show making room for different ways in which couples find mutual sexual satisfaction (in this case, it involves a sex toy and a very specific kind of threesome fantasy).
- In conclusion: I may never look at a cherry tomato the same way ever again.