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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘The Curse,’ a review

Have you ever had a dream that overwhelmed you with stress? You miss an important class, get into legal trouble or have a major drama amongst your friends? Then, when you wake up, you are filled with relief because you actually don’t have to deal with that stressful thing. That is what it is like to finish an episode of “The Curse.” The ten episode miniseries consumes its viewer into a perpetually uncomfortable, eerie existence without a moment of respite. Cringe is not the right word to describe this show—dread—dread is what I felt when watching “The Curse.” Big fan though, great show.

“The Curse” was my most anticipated show, possibly of all time. Around 2019, it was announced that two artists I endlessly love and respect, Benny Safdie and Nathan Fielder, were working together on a project. There was simply no possibility of it being bad. Or normal. Or enjoyable for wide audiences. And “The Curse” checks all of those boxes, but I still don’t really know what to make of it.

It is most easily described as the story of a couple, Asher and Whitney Siegel, played by Fielder and Emma Stone, who are in the process of producing and hosting a new HGTV house flipping show. But there are about a dozen subplots and side characters pulling focus from that at any given moment. The complexity of the story and of the many characters with their many layered relationships, all further complicated by the awkward and blunt depictions of class and racial disparities, create an utterly unpredictable show. At the end of any episode, there was never clarity about what the following episode would be about—never mind what an ending to the story could be. And trust me, you will not predict the ending.

“The Curse” is shot like a reality TV show. Some of what we watch is canonical footage taken by the crew of Asher and Whitney’s HGTV show, but most of it has no in-world explanation. This reality TV style by itself makes the show feel all the more intimate and uncomfortable, but that is heightened by the show’s slow pacing and constant ambient music. Sometimes the camera just stays on a character. They are not talking or changing their expression, they are just still, and all I could think about during these shots was that someone is about to come and murder them. It is all a set-up for “Creep 3” or “Paranormal Activity 8,” something violent and creepy. But the show never goes in that direction. It just leaves the audience waiting for … something.

By far the show’s biggest problem is this unrest it creates in its audience. After four or five episodes, when all the main characters are well established as despicable and awkward, the comedy is all (intentionally) falling flat and the show has no obvious path, yet it constantly feels as if it is building up to something, it gets frustrating and maybe a little boring. I never felt the urge to go on my phone or give up on the show, but there were certainly scenes that made me want to turn off an episode, give myself a break. I am glad I didn’t, but I think rewatching the show with a better idea of what is going to happen would make the experience more enjoyable. 

Intentionality is an important piece of the puzzle that is “The Curse.” This is a show that makes a lot of bold, confusing choices. Like how kink and sex plays a very large part in the progression of the plot, despite the plot containing very little sex and sexuality, or how the acting, particularly by the three central characters, two of whom are played by historically very good actors, always feels a little off, overly obvious or just unrealistic. I do not think I am being generous by assuming this all was intentional and served some purpose, most obviously to make the show as uncomfortable as possible. There is no doubt in my mind that “The Curse” was a meticulously thought out project; it just takes time to grasp why they decided to make it the way they did.

Plenty of audiences will hate “The Curse” because of its weirdness. They will hate it for plenty of other reasons too. And that is all super valid. It is not like a normal television show. Its creators and lead actors are not normal TV people. Benny Safdie and Emma Stone have both worked almost entirely in film and all past Nathan Fielder projects have been either sketch comedy shorts or documentaries. If you want something that you have never seen before, you will find it in “The Curse,” but that does not necessarily mean you will like it. It never hurts to try, though.

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