One taxonomy of embarrassment proposed by social psychologists identifies six different kinds. They are privacy violations, lack of knowledge or skill, criticism and rejection, awkward acts, image failures and environmental stressors. In our emotional wardrobes, embarrassment shares a section with shame and guilt. Handled with lightness, however, embarrassment arcs toward humour. All these discomfortingly self-conscious emotions are the raw materials of The Curse, starring Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder as “fliplanthropists” (philanthropic house flippers) Whitney and Asher Siegel.
Whichever type we’re dealing with, embarrassment requires an audience. So, too, does television – as well as social media, art, advertising, news, the white saviour complex, voyeurism, virtue signalling and the neoliberal appropriation of the philosophy of “effective altruism”. The Curse deals with each of these micro-worlds in devastating ways across a genre-defying 10 episodes written by cringe comedy royalty Fielder (The Rehearsal, Nathan for You, Who is America?), Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) and Carrie Kemper (The Office).
When we meet the Siegels – owners of a New Mexico-based real estate business loudly committed to sustainability and “ethical gentrification” – they are filming a reality pilot about their mission to build “invisible”, eco-friendly housing while providing dubious opportunities for locals in their adopted town – the struggling Española, located on Pueblo land. They live there too, albeit in an oasis of high luxury inside the mirrored-exterior home of Whitney’s probably plagiarised design, where their biggest worry is the meal delivery service screwing up their chicken penne. As a forcefully smiling Whitney puts it, “No one’s more concerned about the G-word than us. But we really believe that gentrification doesn’t have to be a game of winners and losers.”
Thinly concealed by their altruistic, influencer jargon, the Siegel’s relationship to “their community” – its Native American-owned businesses, land, artists and cultural knowledge – is entirely extractive. Their driving concern is with their own wealth, status and the optics of their “brand” in the elevated Idiocracy that is their social milieu. At first, the couple seem to genuinely believe in their mission. But after a hard day at work showcasing their benevolence – which involves acquiescing to their loathsome producer/childhood frenemy, Dougie (Safdie), sprinkling fake tears on an elderly Latina with cancer who hadn’t satisfactorily performed gratitude for their camera – the cracks begin to show.
Staying rigidly on message during a hostile television news interview just makes the Siegels appear deranged. Asher’s sloppy attempt to regain control over their narrative – by offering damaging information about a Native American casino where he once worked – isn’t the free pass he hoped for. Asher follows Dougie’s direction to support children selling drinks in a car park by giving them a $100 bill, but he takes the money back when the cameras stop rolling. “I curse you,” responds a girl named Nala (Hikmah Warsame), with more self-possession than Asher has shown himself capable of. The strange events that follow could be Nala’s curse, or they just might be Asher’s racism, insecurities and privileged delusions menacing him at a remove.
Whether we follow it for aspirational or informational purposes, social media – like the outside of the Siegel home – is more mirror, less window. But it’s a funhouse mirror: confirmation bias, conformity bias, impression management, predatory advertising algorithms and ravening competition for everything from social acceptance to commodities has a distorting effect, so that we see ourselves only darkly. As the Siegels are about to find out, in the end they are no different to the birds colliding with their reflective house, killing themselves on its sleek and depthless exterior.
This uncanny quality is realised in startling ways that are felt before they are consciously identified: the highest accolade I can give in terms of craft. It’s conveyed in the barest flicker of emotion above Stone’s rictus of goodwill, hinting at the storms lashing her interior weather. It was clear from the trailer, which used a stripped-down, haunting version of The Band’s “The Weight”: its warped foreboding signalling that this is not a sunny elder-Millennial send-up, but a white influencer dystopia all its own.
The first television show to premiere at the New York Film Festival, The Curse earns its stripes with virtuosic cinematography and scoring that distorts the familiar by playing with time and perspective in ways that range from an ironic, ’70s visual vernacular to sinister AF. The latter is obvious in the menacing music that plays when the Siegels are behind the wheel of their Tesla: a nod, perhaps, to the self-serving hypocrisy of Elon Musk’s “altruistic” capitalism.
The tech world’s appropriation of “effective altruism” – a concept that originally used applied ethics and evidence-based data to maximise the benefits of charitable giving – enthusiastically urged adherents to “earn to give”. Examples such as Musk or the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX show that tech’s understanding wasn’t what it purported be. Gesturing towards the ethical failures of those claiming a monopoly on “effectiveness” while being driven by a ravening desire for capital, the Siegels’ trajectory explores the ways in which neoliberal altruism has left unchanged – or exacerbated – structural issues that keep individuals and communities locked in poverty.
Although the camera dwells on the micro-penis, I decline to: it’s too much like shooting Freudian fish in a barrel. I will say, however, that episode one contains what’s likely to be the most amusing sex scene of the year. And that when Whitney’s exploitative father sublimates his urine into juicy tomatoes that he makes Asher eat, it is what one expects from Fielder, whose previous televisual offerings included a poo-flavoured frozen yogurt.
Stay with me. The will to power is the current crackling through each of these scenes. As it does in the Siegel’s marriage. While Asher’s approach to the Other is chiefly self-serving, he’s on the receiving end of that dynamic in his relationship. From their parasitical relationship with “their” local community to their increasingly dark symbiosis with Dougie, the series traces the increasingly implausible deniability of their motivations. How that plays out online, on television and in the art world and the activist communities the Siegels are superficially concerned with drives the storyline, as its characters morph in unexpected ways. The show always refers back to its point that those characters most driven by the desire for power are the weakest, their sense of self resting in the hands of every idealised stranger.
While communities of colour are disproportionately harmed in The Curse, no one is spared. As Asher’s slumlord father-in-law ponders while parsing his garden, “People are a lot like tomatoes. You got your big old beefsteaks … and you got your tiny little cherries … Once you put it in between the bread, it’s all the same.”
Fielder was an executive producer of How To with John Wilson, which remains, for me, among the finest creative nonfiction storytelling in any medium in recent times. Opinions vary about The Rehearsal, his reality show that extravagantly simulated reality to prepare real people – and ultimately Fielder playing a version of himself – for uncomfortable situations. In Nathan for You, he again played “Fielder as Fielder”, offering unsolicited, obnoxious “fixes” for struggling local business.
An irony of Fielder’s work is that his reiterative use of second-hand embarrassment is rooted in self-consciousness. While his previous endeavours tilted towards cringe for its own sake, The Curse mines that material in new ways. “The series’ overt acknowledgment of race and class may be something of a mea culpa for him,” Inkoo Kang wrote in The New Yorker. “Though he skirted around the fact at the time, many of the struggling businesses that he messed with on ‘Nathan for You’ seemed to be owned by immigrants or people of color.”
If you can watch without flinching, no awkward moment in The Curse is played just for laughs. Neither comedy nor drama, it’s a show that sits comfortably – as we all do, in the end – in its own category. It’s both a reinterpretation and the highest expression of the quality that inheres in all Fielder’s writing – not cringe, which was only the mirrored exterior of his talent, but wildness. Specifically, literary wildness, as used in an entirely different context by writer Maria Tumarkin, where no sentence dictates the next and in this way opens new possibilities.
Reasonable minds will differ on the places this show takes us. But with his story sense and this dexterously original production, Fielder has attained auteur status. He is his own genre now.
The Curse is streaming on Paramount+.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Beyond the cringe".
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