Few things are more irksome than the contemporary impulse (I think we can blame it on Lost) to decode every TV show as though it’s a puzzle to be solved instead of a story to be savored. But sometimes a close reading is the point. It’s how creators force audiences to lean in, set aside the phone, and immerse themselves in trying to figure out what’s going on. The Curse is a lean-in show if ever there was one.
Created by Benny Safdie (one-half of the Uncut Gems filmmaking duo) and evil comedic genius Nathan Fielder, and starring the pair alongside the inimitable Emma Stone, The Curse is ... a drama? But also a comedy. And kind of a satirical take on HGTV-style house-flipping shows, except it’s also about native land rights in northern New Mexico, but also gentrification, and marriage. Squint and some other stuff shows up, maybe: Judaism, mysticism, ethics in documentary, trendy environmentalism, guilty liberalism, and other truly undefinable swivels that I, having watched the whole series, can’t stop thinking about. A colleague recently called me Vox’s “resident Nathan Fielder whisperer” — probably because I filed around 6,000 words on The Rehearsal, his mystifying six-episode HBO miniseries that aired in the summer of 2022 — and even I have been scratching my head about The Curse.
In a good way, though. There’s not too much I can or should say about the series’ specifics, which unfolds across 10 roughly hour-long episodes (and will be released weekly). To fully enjoy it, though, it’s helpful to know the various sandboxes in which the creators are playing.
The setting, for instance, poses some intriguing questions. Though the story is fictional, it’s set in the northern New Mexican city of Española, not far from Santa Fe, and largely shot around there. While the latter is a tiny and more or less gentrified city where some of the country’s richest people live, the former is more working-class, a diverse city whose population includes American Indians as well as descendants of Spanish settlers. It’s also worth noting that a major employer in Española is Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project was developed — an interesting data point for a show that’s out the same year as Oppenheimer.
The Española setting and the production’s choice to find its cast mostly in New Mexico suggest a raft of issues around which The Curse revolves. There’s the interaction between native pueblos and their land rights and the long history of encroachment on native rights, particularly by white Americans. In The Curse, that becomes a telescoping metaphor; gentrification of the kind the characters engage in is just the latest phase in a very old story.
There’s also the issue of nuclear energy suggested by proximity to Los Alamos, which can be environmentally friendly or destructive, depending on how it’s harnessed. That’s an interesting layer in a show that explores how environmental consciousness can be directed — or misdirected — in ways that have deep unintended effects on less-affluent communities.
But the two characters at the show’s center aren’t lacking for money. Asher and Whitney Siegel (played by Fielder and Stone) are a married couple with deep pockets thanks to Whitney’s real estate baron parents (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman). As the show opens, Asher and Whitney are filming a pilot for an HGTV show they call Fliplanthropy, in which they build energy-efficient “passive” homes that will attract affluent buyers to Española. The couple are good liberal-thinking people, which means they’re aware of what their project could mean for the town’s residents; to defend their work, they’re scrambling for ways to raise the standard of living across the board in the city. Fliplanthropy’s show’s producer, Asher’s childhood friend Dougie Schecter (Safdie), is along for the ride, but less interested in the philanthropy or the houses than in the Siegels’ marriage, in which he spots some cracks.
There’s some broad comedy built into the character names, if I don’t miss my guess. Asher’s nickname is “Ash,” and the name Whitney means “white island,” and they do indeed stand out in a sea of native, Black, and Latino residents. Their names are reminders of what they represent, a force that becomes especially (and painfully) funny as they stumble over themselves to maintain good bleeding-heart cred while also getting what they want, which is money and fame. Furthermore, Dougie’s last name, Schecter, is an Ashkenazic Jewish name that means “ritual slaughterer” — a pretty good hint to his character.
And that points to something worth remembering as you watch The Curse. Both Safdie and Fielder are Jewish, and both have explored Jewish ideas and culture in their work. Benny Safdie and his brother Josh, who wrote and directed 2019’s Uncut Gems, have said in interviews that it’s their most Jewish film, with “explicitly Jewish” humor. And many (including me) have pointed out that Fielder’s careful construction of The Rehearsal seems expressly designed to explore concepts in Judaism as well as the experience of being Jewish in a Christian world.
Those themes pop up in the pilot episode of The Curse almost immediately, with Asher letting a “Jesus” slip on camera as an expletive, then glancing at a crucifix on the wall of the home they’re in and asking for the footage to be deleted. Later, Asher and Whitney (who has converted, with characteristic alacrity, to her husband’s faith) celebrate Shabbat with Whitney’s parents. Judaism and religion more broadly are recurring themes in the show — unsurprising for a story that is fundamentally about generational harm, guilt, and responsibility.
Naturally, all this leads to the title of the show, which I didn’t even think about until I neared the ending. There’s a literal meaning to “The Curse” that becomes evident in the first episode, an incident reportedly inspired by an experience that Fielder had in real life.
But “the curse” is also shorthand for what happened in the Biblical book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve ate fruit growing on a tree they’d been ordered to avoid and were cast out of paradise. God placed a curse upon them, which in its essence said they’d have to perform labor in order to eat, and there’d be strife in their marriage. You can pretty easily map that onto what happens in The Curse, with the fun addition of Dougie as the snake that tempts them into it. When it’s this textual and so strongly linked to the creators’ interests, that’s hardly an accident.
There is so much to unpack in The Curse. It’s somewhat bizarre and winding, anchored by its three leads’ extraordinary performances and a sense of vaguely threatening mystery (due in large part to the score, composed by avant-garde jazz legend John Medeski). For much of the show, you’re not quite sure what you’re even watching, which somehow makes it even more compelling. But with Safdie and Fielder (who directed most of the episodes) behind it, there’s a sense of driving at something. The fun of it comes from starting to detect what the bigger story really is.
The Curse premieres on Paramount+ with Showtime on Friday, November 10, and airs on Showtime on Sunday, November 12, at 10 pm ET. Subsequent episodes will premiere weekly.