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The Curse

Created by Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie

Starring Emma Stone, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie

Premieres Nov. 10 on Paramount+, with new episodes added weekly

Critic’s Pick

Is there a more dangerous place to be than inside the mind of Nathan Fielder? The Canadian comedian, who got his start on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, has in relatively short order become the most provocative and diabolical voice in American television since Sacha Baron Cohen. With his Comedy Central docuseries, Nathan for You, and last year’s HBO sensation The Rehearsal – the latter a brilliant send-up of reality-TV self-help culture that culminated in an ethically dubious twist – Fielder has twisted the idea of reality and fiction, identity and imagination. And all while being side-splittingly funny in a deadpan manner that’s almost sinister.

And now with his new series, The Curse, Fielder is embracing the world of scripted comedy with a stranglehold so intense and determined that the form just about passes out cold.

Co-created by and co-starring Benny Safdie (who with his brother Josh pioneered a new kind of ultra-scuzzy New York cinema as the directors of Good Time and Uncut Gems), The Curse is the most exciting, innovative and delightfully uncomfortable series of the year. And just like the massive undertaking that was The Rehearsal – in which Fielder built fabulously detailed sets and hired legions of professional actors to “help” ordinary people rehearse difficult conversations or upcoming life events – The Curse is a hall-of-mirrors experience that is as haunting as it is hilarious.

The 10-episode series opens by introducing viewers to a fictionalized version of the New Mexican town of Espanola, where married real-estate developers Asher (Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone) have set up shop to film a new home-improvement reality show for HGTV called Flipanthropy. Pushing environmentally responsible housing – with mirror-plated homes that offset their own carbon output – the couple are hoping to rejuvenate the economically depressed town and save the world in the process.

But as the series progresses, it becomes clear that both Asher and Whitney are using the sizzle of a TV series to wrestle with their own private motives – deep, gnawing moral quandaries that start to bubble to the surface once Flipanthropy’s coarse producer, Dougie (Safdie), begins to needle the couple in order to achieve a more titillating kind of reality television.

Whitney, for instance, projects the air of an ultra-progressive ally to the working-class, mostly Indigenous people of Espanola, tossing off such lines of dialogue as, “I’m so grateful for your stewardship.” Yet she’s also making Flipanthropy to run away from the shadow of her wealthy parents, notorious slumlords who couldn’t care less about their community. Asher, meanwhile, is a tightly coiled bundle of neuroses, much of them fuelled by a certain bodily condition that might represent an X-rated first for small-screen depiction.

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The 10-episode series opens by introducing viewers to a fictionalized version of the New Mexican town of Espanola, where married real-estate developers Asher and Whitney have set up shop to film a new home-improvement reality show for HGTV called Flipanthropy.Beth Garrabrant/Handout

And then there’s that curse of the title, a sly bit of surreal magic that is slipped into the show after Asher has an awkward encounter with a young local girl who places a hex on him because of a good deed gone awry. Are Asher and Whit’s many problems – both of the professional and marital variety – merely the kind of everyday challenges that any working couple face when trying to build something from scratch? Or are they the result of something larger and more cosmic?

That fuzzy line between what is real and what is manufactured divides the dark heart of The Curse. Fielder and Safdie delight in the itchy, nerve-wracking comedy that can come from exploring such ambiguity. Even the way the show is shot – many episodes are directed by Fielder himself – blurs the line between scripted and unscripted storytelling. When the HGTV cameras aren’t trained on Asher and Whitney, it seems that we’re watching their lives caught by some other, more hidden camera crew – all high, odd angles and peek-a-boo staging that erases the notion of privacy.

And while the supporting cast is mostly filled out by recognizable faces – including Corbin Bernsen as Whitney’s father, and Captain Phillips scene-stealer Barkhad Abdi as the father of the girl who curses Asher – several of the Espanola locals appear to be, from their mannerisms and halting line deliveries, real-deal community members roped into the show by methods unknown.

Fielder, who projected a bizarrely charming kind of anti-charisma as “host” of Nathan for You and The Rehearsal, digs into some deep, dirty corners to play Asher. There is one sex scene between him and Whitney that is so raw and eye-opening that Fielder challenges himself to find a new level of emasculation never before put on screen. And Stone is, as always, flawless. Playing the self-deluding Whitney as both a victim and a tool of the capitalist machine she professes to be raging against, the actress sinks into a profoundly complicated character.

Like all of Fielder’s productions, there is an almost cruel menace at work in The Curse. But that threat is as much a carrot as it is a stick. Each hour-long episode is a meticulously engineered experiment designed to see how tense a situation can get until audiences are provoked to unrestrained hysterics. It is easy to lose count of just how many times the show transforms a moment of shock into one of laugh-out-loud yelping. A curse that turns into a blessing.

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