The following recap contains spoilers for the premiere of The Curse, S1E1, “Land of Enchantment” (written by Nathan Fielder & Benny Safdie and directed by Nathan Fielder).
I’ve been excited for The Curse ever since I read that it was going to premiere at the New York Film Festival this year (which it did, last month). The series, created by Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie (who also star alongside Emma Stone), is billed as genre-bending, which is true but also the kind of thing you say about a show you don’t quite know how to characterize. Fielder and Safdie are doing something here that doesn’t neatly fit into any predefined categories.
Episode 1 begins in the midst of the show within this show: Fliplanthropy, a reality TV program Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone) and Asher Siegel (Nathan Fielder) are making in relation to their real estate business in Española, New Mexico. Fernando (Christopher D. Calderon) laments the trouble he’s had in finding work as he sits next to his mother, who has cancer. Whitney informs him that they’ve arranged for him to have a full-time job at the newly opening Barrier coffee shop, which he’s happy about. But Dougie (Benny Safdie) doesn’t think his mother looks sufficiently happy.
Dougie wants to put water in her eyes, and he does, though Asher and Whitney start to protest. He also hits her eyes with some menthol to redden them, totally ignoring their attempts to stop him. It’s maybe not a huge deal—no one is actually harmed in any meaningful way here—but it sets up the often fractious dynamic between Dougie and the Siegels from the jump.
Whitney in particular is upset about Dougie’s actions, and she whisper-yells at Asher as they leave the shoot. But I think it’s important to note here that she doesn’t seem concerned about what was done so much as the optics of what was done, even though this was behind the scenes. Whitney and Asher are different on camera than they are off camera, but it’s not a distinction between inauthenticity and authenticity so much as a split between forms of inauthenticity. These are people who care immensely about how they are seen.
This makes sense insofar as we learn later in the episode that their business plan in Española depends on raising the property values in the community as a whole. They are buying houses and retrofitting them to become net zero structures. The Passive House Institute that Whitney mentions would seem to actually exist, and there is something laudable about making environmentally sustainable homes. However, this means that the Siegels don’t profit from the houses themselves. Whatever they say to local reporter Monica Perez (played by Tessa Mentus, who actually holds this job in real life), their plan is gentrification.
Now, the Siegels would also appear to be subsidizing the rent of the locals so that they aren’t displaced, and they say that the eco-friendly businesses that they’re bringing into town will only employ Española residents. But when Barrier opens, it’s largely (temporarily?) staffed by Australians, and Monica notes that the business only has a six-month lease.
She also keeps asking Whitney about her parents, quoting those who have called them slumlords, and that sets Asher off on a (filmed) rant that the Siegels definitely don’t want to make it to air. So he meets with Monica later to offer her a story about the casino he used to work at in exchange for her holding that footage. It’s to be determined how that might play out in future episodes.
Regardless, there is a real question about whether the Siegels are doing a good thing overall, which The Curse sets up slowly through its premiere. At first, I thought Whitney might be estranged from her parents, who are clearly in the real estate business, but she isn’t (even if she does want to create distance between her parents’ business dealings and what she and Asher are doing).
Asher and Whitney visit her parents, Elizabeth (Constance Shulman) and Paul (Corbin Bernsen), for dinner. There doesn’t seem to be any conflict between them at all, besides the awkwardness created by Whitney having told her mother about Asher’s small penis. Paul shares with Asher how he also has a very small penis and offers some advice about that, but he also offers some advice about the real estate business. So there’s nothing to suggest deep disagreements at an ethical level.
At the same time, Asher and Whitney clearly view themselves as doing good. They may be deluded and buying into the image of themselves that they’re trying to sell, but they aren’t engaged in a scheme that stems from cynical detachment. That makes the interplay between reality and reality TV something that I expect will be quite fruitful in exploring these characters as The Curse proceeds.
But all of this has been preamble to addressing what’s clearly going to be at the heart of this show’s plot, given its title. While Asher waits to meet with Monica, Dougie spots a young girl in the parking lot selling cans of soda and goads Asher into giving her money. He only has a $100 bill, but he proceeds to give it to her for the footage. Then he tries to get it back.
Actually, he does get it back by snatching it from the girl’s hand when she isn’t amenable to his suggestion of getting a smaller amount of money in exchange for the soda she’s selling. This leads her to gather herself up and say: “I curse you.”
Asher doesn’t seem to take this terribly seriously, though he does proceed with his plan to get cash from an ATM to give them something. But, when he returns, the two girls and their father are gone, and Asher seems prepared to forget about it.
He’s not able to forget about it, though, because Whitney had told Dougie not to shoot any footage surrounding Asher’s meeting with Monica. Whitney insists on seeing everything he shot when she finds out he shot anything at all, and when she sees the girl cursing Asher, she insists that he go find her right away to give her $100 and make it right.
It’s not entirely clear to what extent Whitney believes in the curse, but it’s interesting to note here that this premise apparently stemmed from something that happened to Nathan Fielder in real life. According to the production notes provided to the press by Showtime, Fielder was approaching a cellphone store after he moved from Canada to LA and was confronted by a woman asking for cash. He apologized, saying he didn’t have any, which led her to say, “I curse you.” And that bothered him enough that he ended up going to an ATM to get some cash to give her, at which point she assured him the curse had been lifted. He didn’t believe in the curse, but he did this anyway. And I think that’s relatable.
Regardless, within the context of The Curse, Asher does not seem to have found the young girl who cursed him. At least, we don’t see him doing so, and we do see him looking. So, he lies to his wife when he tells her that he found the girl and that she assured him the curse had been lifted.
It’s worth noting that, as he tells her all of this, our perspective is through the peephole of a door. Though you might think this is Dougie spying on them at first, it turns out to be from the door across the hall. I have no idea who was looking through that peephole in this scene, but it’s sure to factor in later.
And I’m sure that Whitney will somehow discover that Asher has lied to her and that this curse will have a lasting impact in terms of what’s to come. It may not be real, and the Siegels may not believe that it is real, but what is reality anyway?
The Curse is primed to explore that question over the course of its run, and I’m looking forward to the ride.