Internet trends are rampant yet short-lived, lasting no longer than a week. In fact, if someone watched the video from The Ring and only had seven days to live, they would manage to still see at least three internet memes, trends or crazes happen and fizzle out. Videos find audiences quicker: Vine was the source of smartphone entertainment for the greater part of 2013-2016 before being shut down in January of 2017, quickly being replaced by the still-popular TikTok. Creators constantly film while audiences devour their content. It might be obvious that the contemporary social media structure would have direct impacts on human relationships, the indirect effects that these trends have is compelling when looking microcosmically at one relationship that finds itself turning inside out after a trend sheds a light on it. This is the basic premise of Showtime’s newest limited series, The Curse, the most bizarrely compelling series of the year.
Nathan Fielder (The Rehearsal) and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) have come together with A24 for a creative marriage so strange, audiences will surely give each episode multiple viewings for full digestion of the weird relationship in front of them. Starring along Nathan Fielder is Academy Award winner Emma Stone (La La Land), last seen on television in Netflix’s 2018 limited series Maniac, another curation of unexpected and eccentric plotlines that allowed audiences to spend hours with the actress. In a match made in secondhand embarrassment Hell, Fielder and Stone play married couple Asher and Whitney, who are ambitiously attempting to get an HGTV pilot greenlit to showcase their holistic home philosophy and thoughts about community building. A community whose rent is being subsidized using the couple’s money, Whitney makes sure to mention, but according to her, they are not gentrifiers. The couple’s series, importantly titled “Fliplanthropy,” highlights the fissures that already exist in their relationship due to the imitation of compassionate people they’re pretending to be for the camera. Always lurking around is Dougie (Benny Safdie), the producer with peculiar behaviors and creepy overtones that has his own issues to deal with while they’re shooting. A quick shot meant to capture Asher handing out money to a young girl becomes ominous after he snatches it back and she literally curses him.
A moment that is both funny and awkward in equal measure as a young girl stands in front of a grown man, putting a curse on him, happens in a parking lot and derails Asher’s mental well-being (especially later finding out it was part of a TikTok trend of “tiny curses” that people were inflicting upon others). Minor inconveniences and situations – start occurring,like the inability to receive a refund for an incorrectly made meal. Small frustrations build quickly, especially when someone is already on edge: an angry Asher unleashes on someone he believes has been rude to Whitney, a silent fury boiling underneath his skin finally released. On the other side of the relationship (and argument about whether or not Asher should have just let the girl keep the money) is Whitney, who is clearly dealing with confronting herself at every turn. She actively distances herself from her parents, Paul and Elizabeth (L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernsen and Orange is the New Black’s Constance Shulman, respectively), notorious landlords who raise Whitney’s blood pressure instantly upon seeing them. Whitney and Asher have a disconnect in their relationship unseen by the couple, passive aggression existing in any space between them, their sex life being so strange that even a description would warrant a spoiler warning. When the inconveniences become terrible situations, including Whitney having medical issues that mostly makes Asher uncomfortable, her paranoia about the existence of the curse starts to exert much mental energy from her husband and the two attempt to figure out what to do about it. The nine episodes provided to critics for review (out of ten) examine the couple’s inability to create an honest atmosphere with one another because of their maladaptive patterns that put them in their current position.
While their relationship can appear merely painfully awkward, the two provide more excruciating illustrations of their conspired candidness in the privacy of their home. Some scenes begin with actual charm, like Asher attempting to wrestle a sweater over Whitney’s head without pulling any hair, but then takes a turn once he gets it off: she suggests they do it again, this time with one of their phones recording. It’s representative of Whitney and Asher’s entire relationship and parts of their personalities as well, as she manufactures sentimentality and intimacy while Asher idly allows it to presumably keep their relationship from falling apart. Moments feel like lifetimes after Asher does something borderline sinister or Whitney imitates normalcy. As the season progresses, the episodes become violently embarrassing for the couple as they keep perpetrating microaggressions towards the people they claim to want to help and work towards a better connection with each other. Fielder brings an unseen level of contempt towards others to the role, a darkness surrounding Asher that’s probably visible to every animal alive. Fielder manages to create minor sympathy for this pathetic character in outrageous scenes, at least when it comes to saving his current relationship. Stone remains one of the most versatile actors of her generation, and this performance is no different as she navigates a lost woman who has stopped looking at herself for validation and seeks it elsewhere. Whitney is a character to be handled with care and Stone delivers a delicate balance of corny jokes and constant misunderstandings with the people around her and Asher.
While all of this is happening to the two of them, Dougie is busy being the biggest creep alive. His very demeanor suggests that he might break into a nearby car just to await its owner and steal only their license upon their return to the vehicle. Men like Dougie exist, especially in the world of film and television, producers that seemingly don’t shower that believe ambition means climbing over those with less obvious privileges in life. Benny Safdie is excellent in the role, believably the worst person around and stemming with suffocatingly malevolent energy any time he appears. An discomfort created on the series by the characters is matched in the camerawork, director of photography Maceo Bishop’s lens slowly creeping around them, sometimes slowly pushing in silently. – These moments of unabated uneasiness are masterful and prevalent throughout The Curse, none too shocking for fans of both Fielder and Safdie’s previous works. Fielder’s latest, The Rehearsal, was an examination of melding performance and reality, while Safdie’s last couple of films have been more anxiety-inducing than anything else released in their respective calendar years. It will come as no surprise that The Curse is a monument to discomfort and secondhand embarrassment as it blends these characters’ on-screen personas into the reality they want to live.
The unease exists in part thanks to the atmospheric score composed by John Medeski; it creeps into scenes and draws attention to itself without overpowering. The eerie music is reminiscent of other volatile works, such as Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (though, easily, not as intense). Coupled with a lingering frame, the music elevates some of the more uncomfortable scenes to borderline overwhelming, asking audiences to bear these moments the characters are undergoing. Asher and Whitney become more intolerable as the episodes progress and the series matches that momentum by becoming increasingly more erratic-feeling, each situation weirder than the last. The couple continues to put themselves in situations that no normal person could believe would actually be helpful, such as Whitney putting items stolen from their clothing store on her credit card so no one would have to be charged for the theft. She seems to believe it will actually do some good, but even that will create questions around the genuineness of her intentions. Watching these two is meant to stir up conversations around the probability of people aiding others for the sake of engagement farming and streams and the series succeeds by managing to stay realistic in its portrayal of these outlandish people.
The entirety of the internet has become full of random trends that only take over for a little while, but the lasting effects of finding the truth about oneself can be lifelong. It only makes sense that everyone involved in this series exceeded all expectations, with Fielder and Stone both turning in phenomenal lead performances that accentuate their abilities as actors to create humor in the depths of discomfort. The Curse is a weirdly fun watch that will cause involuntary awkward chuckles. The internet is a place where anyone can be themselves, but the camera will capture the truth. Maybe instead of recording a dance, consider cursing someone instead.
The Curse will premiere three episodes on streaming and on demand for Paramount+ subscribers with the Paramount+ with SHOWTIME plan on Friday, November 10, before making its on-air debut on SHOWTIME on Sunday, November 12. Then new episodes weekly.
Photo: John Paul Lopez/A24/Paramount+ with Showtime