The Curse, the latest wild-card creation from director Nathan Fielder now streaming on Paramount Plus, is a show about the two worst people in the world: newlyweds Whitney and Asher Siegel, who are trying to get their home development show — shamelessly titled Fliplanthropy — picked up by HGTV.
Whitney and Asher know what you’re thinking. More greedy developers trying to turn a profit? But don’t worry, Whitney (Emma Stone) and Asher (Fielder) aren’t like those fat cats you see on television — they swear. They’re here to help. And if they make lots of money while they’re at it, what’s the harm in that?
The Curse is set in Española, N.Mex., a low-income and majority Hispanic town. Whitney and Asher are developing dozens of plots of land in Española into costly (but carbon-neutral!) houses with mirrored exteriors that provide warped reflections, making literal the Siegels’ inability to see themselves for what they are.
Whitney is an heiress (her parents, also developers, gave her the land), but she sees herself as a self-made artist. Asher calls himself a “whistleblower,” exposing fraudulent practices at a casino he used to work at while covering up the fact that he was at the helm of the misdeeds.
Fliplanthropy, as the Siegels tell a newscaster, is intended to “bring much-deserved attention to Española” and to increase demand for the Siegels’ “conscientious rejuvenation of distressed homes.”
This, of course, is doublespeak for gentrification. Again, no worries. “No one is more concerned about the G-word than us,” Asher tells the unconvinced newscaster. “But we believe gentrification doesn’t have to be a game of winners and losers.”
Although the Siegels recognize that their developments are driving up the cost of living in Española, they plan to offset this by using “a portion” of each home sale to subsidize local rents. Their methodology is like lighting a scented candle after the elephant in the room has left a turd on the carpet.
One of the smartest parts of The Curse is that Whitney and Asher, whose marriage is a feedback loop of self-delusion, have convinced themselves that their tall tale is true. “We’re not HGTV — we don’t share those values,” Whitney tells Asher as the two walk into a meeting to pitch their show to HGTV.
There has been no shortage lately of television and cinema lambasting the wealthy. Succession, The White Lotus, Industry, The Righteous Gemstones, and the Gossip Girl reboot all aired in the past five years. In 2022, Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, and Glass Onion debuted in theaters. Each one promised audiences the vicarious experience of eating the rich.
But all these shows and movies are about awful people who revel in being awful. More than half of them are murderers. Consequently, the writers and directors of these works undercut their own class critique: the immorality of these rich antiheroes is ultimately ascribed to the psychological fact of their wicked dispositions, not to the social fact of their wealth.
The Curse bests them all because Whitney and Asher, even when they try to right their wrongs, still act in immoral ways. At every turn, money compromises them. The result is a show that declares there is no ethical way to accumulate wealth in a country where the gap between rich and poor is huge.
This is particularly true under surveillance capitalism, in which many behave like PR agents, placing more value on seeming like a good person than on being one. The Curse’s cinematography brilliantly takes its cues from the surveillance gaze — we watch Whitney and Asher through peepholes, casino security cameras, mirrors, windows, the sliver provided by a door not fully closed.
These shots make you aware that you are watching the cringiest moments of the Siegels’ marriage. The effect is both uncomfortable and invigorating, leaving you squirming on the couch. One of Fielder’s talents as a director is his willingness to keep the camera on what we normally look away from. He holds it there — then he holds it there even longer.
Everywhere, we see the cameras and microphones for Fliplanthropy. In episode three,Whitney becomes paranoid that the crew is getting audio of the real her between tapings. Asher, in the pilot, hands a young Black girl selling soda in a parking lot a $100 bill. “Here’s a little something just for being you,” he says. Then, when he thinks the cameras have stopped rolling, he asks for the money back. He eventually grabs it out of her hand. “I curse you,” the girl says. We watch as Asher becomes convinced that she really did, that his actions are anyone’s fault but his own.
Stone — up for an Oscar for best actress for her role in Poor Things — is the standout of this show. She plays Whitney not as cartoonishly wicked but more subtly: as a hypocrite who has taken ideologies (feminism, environmentalism, wealth redistribution) she once believed in and retrofitted them as pretty packaging for her vanity project. The “eco-conscious design” of the Siegels’ homes is little more than a polite excuse for the catastrophic effects they’re having on Española’s residents.
Whitney wears a perma-smile, charming her way through every white lie and empty promise. The one time she experiences something like actual happiness, alone and listening to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” her face falls into a scowl. And the one time she says anything resembling the truth, she’s in the back seat of her parents’ car, whining about how they don’t treat her like “a grown-up, a full-grown woman.” In that moment of petulance, the only time she doesn’t speak in rehearsed phrases, Whitney reveals what she really thinks underneath all the camera-ready rhetoric: “Española is mine. It’s all mine.”