Television Review: “The Curse” — Inept White Saviors
By Sarah Osman
The series’ fierce satiric takedown of America’s enlightened white elite is brilliant.
Starring opposite Academy Award winner Emma Stone is not an easy feat. The camera seems to adore following her, perhaps because she has chemistry with everything, whether it is animate or inanimate. So Nathan Fielder had his work cut out for him as her co-star in the Showtime series The Curse. Thankfully, the guy holds his own, proving that he’s not only a brilliant comedian and writer, but he can act too.
The Curse, created by Fielder and Benny Safdie of the Safdie brothers, is filled with Fielder’s signature brand of cringe-making comedy. But the series takes advantage of its fictional universe to be more biting than the comedian’s strange reality series, Nathan For You. In this darkly political satiric outing, Fielder and Safdie deftly lampoon white saviors and liberal activists.
Stone and Fielder star as Whitney and Asher, a married couple who are filming an HGTV pilot. Titled “Flipanthropy,” the series will follow Whitney as she tries to invigorate the environment of Espanola, an actual rundown community in New Mexico. She wants to do this by creating “passive homes,” which are made from reflective mirrors designed to keep temperatures constant. She considers these domiciles to be works of art, though critics and others in the art world aren’t buying it. They make their disdain clear via negative comments on her Instagram. Asher, her awkward husband, is just along for the lucrative TV ride.
I have lived in New Mexico and am familiar with Espanola and several of the other towns mentioned in the show, such as Santa Fe. I am convinced that either Safdie or Fielder (or perhaps both) have spent some time in the “land of enchantment” — this may be one of the most accurate portrayals of the state I’ve ever seen on screen. Santa Fe’s pretentious art scene is mocked by way of a fictional Native artist, whose “art” involves screaming at people for eating the slices of deli turkey she hands them. Santa Fe’s disdain for towns like Espanola is a part of everyday reality: Espanola jokes are as commonplace as green chile. Wisely, Safdie and Fielder never make fun of the town or its people. Their target is the arrogant (and ineffectual) liberals who try to improve places like Espanola. Those who want to feel better about themselves by profiting from “improving” others. Espanolans aren’t the brunt of the joke here — it is aimed at the wealthy and egotistical. And this takedown of the elite is brilliant.
Stone perfectly encapsulates the contradiction of Whitney’s being a white ally of the poor. She has to make up for the damage done by her parents, who are literal slumlords. It’s made clear early on that Whitney doesn’t really care about the people she’s supposedly dedicated to helping. Whitney cares about herself and establishing her do-gooder image. Whitney’s actions are all about showing respect to difference — but only on the surface, such as greeting every Spanish person she meets with a hearty “hola” and fully embracing her husband’s Jewish heritage. Yet Whitney is determined to burnish her image on TV to the point that she forces her husband to reenact what was a sweet moment between them (spoiler: it doesn’t go well). Still, as infuriating as Whitney is, you can’t take your eyes off her, thanks to Stone’s nuanced performance. She is deadly earnest about Whitney’s sincerity: we know it’s bullshit, but Whitney doesn’t.
Asher, on the other hand, resents his wife. He’s as zany as Fielder’s previous “characters,” but this one is angry. He’s insecure about his micropenis, which his father-in-law insists on talking about with him (in one of the series’ funniest moments, Whitney’s father declares he and Asher are the cherry tomato boys). Asher lacks his wife’s natural charisma on camera: he comes across as stoic. Yes, he wants to support his wife, but is frustrated because he is being held back, struggling with his own issues. Fielder has never played a character like Asher before, and it is arguably his best performance. There is an explosive element here that adds tension: Asher bottles up his anger only to blow up at inopportune moments.
Safdie plays the show-biz-minded director who is in charge of Whitney and Asher’s pilot. His character, reeling from a DUI tragedy, wants to make “Flipanthropy” into an entertaining show. But Whitney is not into entertainment — she wants liberal transformation.
The curse of the title, placed on Asher jokingly by Abshir’s daughter, ironically underscores Whitney and Asher’s attempts to assist Abshir (Barkhad Abdi) and his family, who have no time for these inept white people. Watching the family’s uncomfortable interactions with Whitney is wince-inducing — at one point she asks Abshir if he is making hot dogs with rice or veggies — but it is also a hilarious send-up of the white savior narrative.
Fielder’s black comic approach in The Curse — spoofing the selfishly well-heeled and cluelessly enlightened– will not appeal to everyone. But for those fed up with the kind of white allies who care more about piling up Instagram likes than actually helping the people they claim to care for, The Curse will be a refreshing blessing.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman