John Paul Lopez/A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME
The titular curse of The Curse, a new Showtime series created by Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie, occurs when Asher Siegel, played by Fielder, gives a $100 bill to a little girl selling soft drinks in a parking lot. He quickly returns and offers her a 20 instead. “You can’t do that, or I’ll curse you!” the little girl yells. She closes her eyes and exhales. “I curse you.” A slight premise on which to hang a 10-episode television series, perhaps. But as with most things about The Curse, there is more going on here than meets the eye.
The series, whose finale aired on Jan. 12, is a satirical meditation on The Way We Live Now. Its languid pace, myriad subplots, and unsettling engagements with religion (Judaism, in particular), ecology, privilege, power, race, art, and gender suggest that it’s not for everyone. The show is set in the world of the hyper-woke and eco-conscious Asher and Whitney Siegel (played by Fielder and Emma Stone), stereotypical millennials trying to become HGTV darlings by creating a reality series that uses liberal pieties to cover up ruthless land theft and price-gouging.
The Siegels are awful to each other, and to the people they encounter. Their brand of social and environmental justice is often skin deep. These circumstances make for an easy ironic setup, since the Siegels see themselves as the good guys. Good guys, however, are nowhere to be found. Where many current forms of popular entertainment feel the need to instruct their audience, The Curse is less interested in telling than showing.
Although co-written by Fielder and Uncut Gems auteur Benny Safdie, tonally the show is closer to A24’s 2019 folk horror film Midsommar. Like that film, The Curse is a sun-drenched slow burn, centered around spiritually unmoored and ethically challenged characters who are oblivious to the obvious menace around them. Like a classic horror movie, the looming threat to both the couple and their progressive pieties is coming from inside the house, both literally and figuratively.
The Siegels’ expensive, state-of-the-art homes don’t just capture light, but also reflect back the surrounding neighborhood of chain-link fences, overgrown yards, carports, and squat, single-story homes. The show subtly shines a light on the inequality and imbalance that defines the Siegels’ relationship with those around them, but the Siegels just don’t see it. They continue cheerfully refuting charges of gentrification while deliberately raising property values in the depressed Santa Fe suburb of Española, displacing longtime residents to build eco-friendly “passive homes.”
When not trying to sell their show to HGTV, they are trying to sell these “passive homes” to prospective buyers. One of the season’s story arcs concerns a couple that is interested in one of the homes but that ultimately backs out of the deal because of the Siegels’ odd and off-putting behavior. First, Whitney objects to the couple’s plan for an HVAC system, which would remove their passive home certification. Then she tries to harangue the couple into signing what she calls “a letter of support” for a nearby Native American tribe’s claims to ownership of the roads and easements in the area.
“It’s saying that we won’t object to any claims of ownership by the tribe,” one of the would-be buyers points out, quickly putting two and two together. Despite Whitney’s assurances that the property they’re about to purchase isn’t currently up for dispute between the tribe and government authorities, the buyer is not convinced. “Who’s to say they won’t change their mind?” The buyer asks. “If you go back far enough, they could put claims on anything, no?”
It’s a bit that—with slightly lower production values and less nuance—would work as a Babylon Bee video. Indeed, shortly after this exchange, onetime Babylon Bee video star Dean Cain makes an appearance as Mark, a character Cain plays with game guilelessness. Cain drives a huge pickup with a Blue Lives Matter flag decal, embodying a “deplorable” the Siegels have studiously avoided until they can’t anymore. Whitney agrees to meet him under cover of darkness, and offers a flimsy excuse to avoid shaking his hand (“I feel a little sick”).
After the insulted potential buyers back out, the Siegels become desperate enough to swallow their progressive principles and meet with Mark. Much to their surprise, however, Mark is genuinely enthusiastic about passive living. “I love that these are basically off the grid, you don’t have to rely on anyone,” he says, “But it’s not like you’re living in some shack, cursing out the government.” As the “A is A” bumper sticker on his truck suggests, he’s some kind of libertarian, but not a nut about it.
Whitney alludes vaguely to his thin-blue-line flag, asking about his support for the police. “I show my support in other ways, too,” he says, “I donate to the police and to other causes. UNICEF, World Wildlife Fund, Christian missionaries.”
He throws the Siegels for another loop when the subject of Native American land rights is raised.
“All the tribes need to be paid for the public use of those roads,” Mark insists. “It’s like they take everything, and we have to fight for pennies. My great-grandmother was Apache on my grandmother’s side, so it’s a personal thing for me.”
What does the casting of an out-and-proud Trump supporter in a hip A24 production mean? Fielder and Safdie seem to be challenging viewers to look at people like Mark not as two-dimensional types but as—gasp—complicated human beings, which may not seem so wildly daring if you come from the America of even a decade ago, but currently is a challenge that few other places seem to be willing to take up or to answer. Gina Carano was expelled a few years ago from the Star Wars galaxy for her politics, and found a home at the film production wing of the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s conservative media empire.
Mocking the presumptive values held by most A24 viewers is precisely what Fielder and Safdie seem interested in, at least implicitly. What is intended, for example, by the way Whitney and Asher are never shown wearing COVID masks, yet studio audiences, service people, massage therapists, teachers, and production assistants are? The masks are occasionally used to unnerving or eerie effect, but never explicitly addressed.
The show’s interest in the contrast between art and messaging is underscored in the character of Cara Durand, a Native American performance artist whom Whitney insists on referring to as a good friend. Her work, when we are shown it, includes stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans on stolen MLB merchandise. “It’s brilliant,” one show attendee remarks, “Because if the baseball league wants to charge her with theft, they would be forced to address their ignorance.” Another installation is a sign from a summer camp with “Indian” place names on it (“Made by a nonindigenous creator,” Whitney explains to Asher, “That’s why she’s chosen to damage the object”).
We are also shown a performance art piece inside a tepee, where visitors sit silently with Cara one-on-one, while she screams as they eat a piece of turkey she shaves for them. Another Native American joins her in the tent and refuses to eat the turkey. “Is that it?” he asks, when she is done screaming.
Despite her obvious contempt for Whitney, Cara is not automatically the good guy, either. She cynically accepts Whitney and Asher’s white-guilt-motivated patronage and happily takes Whitney’s money to work as an indigenous consultant on what the Siegels call “Fliplanthropy”—the process of flipping homes as a form of charity. It’s a title that makes little sense, since the Siegels don’t flip homes, so much as displace longtime residents to build Doug Aitken-esque future homes. The title is later changed to “Green Queen” to center Whitney’s ecological commitment. No one in the show is virtuous; every soul, The Curse suggests, is corrupted by the same forces that make the Siegels so unappealing.
The critical and audience reactions to The Curse raise the question of whether it’s a show that’s skewering performance art, or a kind of performance art of its own? At one point, we’re shown a clip from “Fliplanthropy” where the Siegels recite in unison a lengthy land acknowledgment while standing at one of their building sites. “We do recognize ourselves as having obtained this land through a long history of colonization,” Whitney says on the show. “The many years of genocide may not be wiped away by this statement, but it’s important that we acknowledge,” they say, before concluding their recitation: “We gather today on occupied and unceded land.” The perplexed construction crew are shown looking around uncomfortably.
This is where the audience reaction becomes instructive. “I have to hear something almost like this every all [sic] staff meeting i go to,” one viewer posted on the r/TheCurse Reddit. “Me too!” another Redditor responded, “Bay Area?”
Such sentiments were common across the show’s Reddit channel.
Whitney enjoys an image of herself as a sort of ecological Jesuit, establishing her passive homes as missionary outposts that will lift up the working poor of Española through community engagement. Her community work is secular. But is it?
While the Siegels’ hypocrisy is obvious, they frequently reassure themselves and each other that they are good people. In the world they inhabit, the worst thing you can call someone is a bad person. But good and bad according to whom? The ultimate arbiter of right and wrong in the Siegels’ world is in their own self-perception, and the perceptions of others, as symbolized by a spooky recurring motif of mirrors, reflections, windows, peep holes, cameras, and audio recordings.
“Maybe this,” Whitney fumes, holding up her Star of David necklace, “is what happens when you raise your kid to believe in nothing.” She is speaking to her parents, vaguely bohemian boomers who own controversial low-income housing units in the area. Her mother has accused Whitney, who has converted to Asher’s Judaism, of “playing dress up” by converting.
But in the first episode, we see her dutifully lighting Shabbat candles at a family Friday night dinner, and Asher blessing the bread and wine. We also hear Whitney’s dad snickering.
“We did not raise her with nothing,” her mother says after Whitney storms out of their argument. But there is little evidence to support this contention, since both Whitney and her husband often seem lost without a script of approved jargon. While Whitney can fluently explain why they light Shabbat candles when asked, Asher has clearly never heard this explanation before (or has never paid attention). “We do them because Whitney wants to do them,” he says at first. When Whitney says it’s to avoid lighting a fire after sundown, Asher expresses surprise. “That’s what he told us in the class,” Whitney says to him quietly.
Whether it’s apologetics, social justice bromides, or therapy-speak, the Siegels can rarely do much more than parrot others when threatened. During a particularly wrenching marital argument, Asher tells Whitney, “I take offense to the fact that you’re not validating my feelings.” The ensuing clash has the two talking over and past each other in a quarrel worthy of a Da Ponte libretto. “I said the sentence that Lisa told us to, and you’re still attacking me!” he yells in a mounting tantrum of frustration. “I said exactly what we’ve been told to say! You’re breaking it! I said the sentence, and you’re not doing it!”
Say the words you’ve been told to say, and everything should proceed as planned. The show is called The Curse, however, so of course nothing proceeds as planned. That is true for the audiences, as well. Devoted viewers and critics spent weeks posting screenshots and theories online about where the show was going. Ultimately, the show’s surreal finale left many mystified and disappointed.
A generation disappointed by the finales of Lost and Game of Thrones should have known they wouldn’t have all of their questions neatly answered. “Might be the most inexplicable ending in TV history,” offered a review in Slate. The Times’ Alissa Wilkinson asked whether clearly observant Jew Asher Siegel’s resolution on the show was intended—mild spoiler ahead—to be a reference to the evangelical Christian belief in the Rapture. Given this poor level of religious literacy, it is perhaps not surprising that Wilkinson said she only noticed the many explicit references to the Siegels’ Judaism upon rewatching the series. “What does it mean?” she asked her colleagues, referring to the finale. “Please help me!” Which is what happens when you raise kids to believe in nothing.
Unlike Cara Durand, Whitney Siegel, and The New York Times, Safdie and Fielder aren’t trying to tell their viewers what to think. They steer clear of moralism, even with distinctly contemptible leads. A show that plays with the way we see ourselves and each other is not a referendum on values and tastes, but a mirror.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.