I have various thoughts on the premiere episode of Nathan Fielder’s The Curse, but the predominant one is that I don’t love it. I’m intrigued by it. I won’t rule out the possibility that, by the end, I might see it as a work of genius. However, the opening episode — where Fielder and Emma Stone portray characters in an HGTV-like home makeover series set in a small town in New Mexico — has not won me over.
While Nathan for You was good, The Rehearsal was somehow better. I watched it twice — once to enjoy it and a second time to appreciate it — and it was even more uncomfortable the second time. My only issue with The Rehearsal was that, near the end, it evolved into something almost cruel as the real kid in Fielder’s pretend family developed real feelings for Fielder.
However, that’s also what made The Rehearsal so effective: the real-world discomfort had the potential for real-world consequences. Those are the stakes that are lacking so far in The Curse. Cringe comedy has historically worked for Fielder because we feel uncomfortable watching him make real people feel ill at ease. Meanwhile, cringe comedy works in a series like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm because the comedy feels relatable or because we are invested in the characters and don’t want them to embarrass themselves.
There’s nothing relatable about the married couple Asher and Whitney Siegel (Fielder and Emma Stone). In the pilot, the very act that leads to “the curse” involves Asher giving a homeless girl $100 on camera because it’s the only bill he has. Once he thinks the camera has stopped rolling, he takes back the money and offers to go to an ATM and give her $20. This type of gag might work in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it would be more effective because Larry would position himself as the aggrieved party. It would be funny because the joke would ultimately be at his expense.
Likewise, if the actual Nathan Fielder had taken the $100 from the homeless girl, it would be funny in an “I can’t believe he just did that” kind of way. But Nathan is playing a character who takes money from an actor, and if that weren’t obvious, Emma Stone’s presence assures us that this is all pretend. If a character we like in spite of ourselves took $100, we might laugh. But Asher is an asshole. When he takes the $100, he’s just a villain. Watching bad people do bad things isn’t cringe comedy; it’s sociopathy.
Similarly, the Fielder brand of comedy usually comes effortlessly. He presents an uncomfortable situation to a real person in an otherwise ordinary setting, and we watch the comedy of discomfort play out. Fielder can brilliantly extract comedy from a simple disagreement. In The Curse, it almost feels over-the-top and forced: he has to resort to a conversation in which his father-in-law (played by Corbin Bernsen) tries to bond with him over their respective tiny penises or a sex scene in which Asher gets off on watching his wife use a vibrator they name Steve. The scenes are amusing but only in a gross-out comedy sort of way.
Nevertheless, I like to think that there is more to The Curse than what’s apparent from the pilot episode. These contrived situations, designed to be shocking and uncomfortable, may be setting the table for something more substantive. I hope that Fielder and co-creator Benny Safdie (who also plays the deeply amoral producer of the docuseries) will turn the camera on the audience and that The Curse will be a biting satire on our obsession with manufactured reality or at least something more than Fielder trying to get a rise out of his audience. At the moment, it seems like an interesting experiment. It’s unclear if it will be a successful one.