The effect of The Curse, the new ten-episode cringe-comedy series on Showtime created by Nathan Fielder (The Rehearsal, Nathan for You) and Bennie Safdie (Uncut Gems), who also star along with Emma Stone, is hard to describe. It’s sort of low key yet excruciating, which is a grim combo. From the beginning, there’s a muted buildup of queasy dread, as the cringe effect gets slowly cranked higher and higher. It seems pretty clear that the series will have to arrive at some sort of appalling horror or mayhem by the end.
And I’m only at the end of episode one, as Showtime releases one hour-long episode per week, perhaps all the public can bear.
I admit I’m an easy cringer, and it would take a lot less than the combined expertise of Fielder and Safdie — both masters of anxiety-producing effects, in their different registers — to make me suffer. If The Curse weren’t so intriguing in its offbeat, mortifying way, I’d never be able to sit through it.
The Curse is about an affluent married couple named Asher (Fielder) and Whitney Siegel (Stone) who are hosting a reality TV show pilot they hope to sell to HGTV called Flipanthropy, produced and directed by the crass Dougie Schecter (Safdie). The concept of the show is a combo of all those home-improvement and house-flipping shows plus Queer Eye–type philanthropy imposed on the working-class citizens of Española, New Mexico. The show’s “good deeds” involve providing housing to those getting gentrified out of the area, but this takes the form of putting residents in the Siegels’ own eco-homes. Their property development company model is to buy up cheap properties, renovate them in energy efficient ways, and flip them to reap great profits. They also get jobs for locals in trendy new coffee shops and pottery stores that they’ve invested in.
The Siegels are cluelessly convinced of their own beneficence. For example, they think that buying up indigenous art to decorate chic coffee shop walls will neutralize their own participation in gentrifying the area. The series goes after big, fat, easy targets — the dumb vulgarity of reality TV, the inane rationalizations of rich gentrifiers who convince themselves they’re true allies of the working class. But there’s such a dogged relentlessness in the show’s approach, you can’t help expecting that it’s headed somewhere than you haven’t been before. Someplace you might not want to go, but feel compelled to go, as in nightmares.
On camera, the Siegels promise to subsidize the new housing so that renters won’t be paying more, but even in the first episode it’s clear the whole plan is wobbling and ready to collapse. A reporter is already investigating the sources of their income and discovering that Whitney’s father Paul (Corbin Bernsen) built his fortune as a local slumlord. The press doesn’t know yet the full relationship between Paul’s money and Whitney and Asher’s company, but it’s only a matter of time. Especially because Asher has no ability to manage the press, and everything he does to placate them makes the publicity for Flipanthropy worse.
From bad to worse seems to be the socially stunted Asher’s typical course in life. He’s urged by Dougie to go offer money to a young girl selling sodas in a parking lot, to capture a “spontaneous” moment of Siegel philanthropy on camera. Asher only has a hundred-dollar bill, but he approaches the girl and offers it to her with a patronizing smile, saying “This is just for being you.”
Then, when the “scene” is over, he tries to get the hundred back, so he can break it at a nearby eatery and then give the girl a twenty. The girl protests — her sister and father come forward to defend her — and when Asher finally pulls the bill from her hands, she says in somber rage, “I curse you!”
Baffled and trying to carry on as planned, Asher says lamely, “’kay.”
Then he tries to change the bill, but the clerk can’t break a hundred, and suggests Asher try the ATM. It’s malfunctioning. A local customer who knows the machine’s quirks offer to help him, but needs his pin number because the machine has to be jostled in a particular way while entering the pin. Asher clearly thinks he’s about to be scammed, but he’s desperate for twenties, and doesn’t know how to get out of the awkward social impasse. In characteristic fashion, he makes everything worse by hesitating so long it’s clear he suspects the man of scamming him, but finally giving him the PIN number anyway.
Asher gets the twenties, but the local man is mortally insulted. And after all that, the girl and her family are gone from the parking lot when Asher returns. To cap it all off, Dougie kept the camera running on the whole appalling exchange with the girl, and later Whitney sees the footage. She insists Asher find the girl and return the hundred-dollar bill. Asher goes out looking, but finally just gives the money to a struggling single mother and then lies to Whitney about it, claiming he gave the girl back the hundred. Of course, this hellish storyline will continue in episodes to come, as Asher’s lies come back to haunt him.
Soon so many things are going wrong, it seems like there’s a real possibility that the girl’s curse had supernatural power over Asher and Whitney’s whole showbiz enterprise as well as their marriage. But then again, who needs paranormal interference when ordinary human behavior is so destructive?
The way the series is presented, framed for us through dirty windows and chain-link fences as well as erratic film and cellphone recordings, makes us wonder who’ll have the controlling perspective in the end. Certainly Dougie seems like a compulsive wrecker, constantly wrangling with the Siegels for power over the show, pushing outrageous ideas he insists are “standard” in the industry. And he finds endless ways to drive wedges between Asher and Whitney, whose relationship seems shaky at best and appalling at worst.
By the end of the first episode, we already know far more than we want to about Asher’s penis size — thanks to an unexpected close-up shot — as well as father-in-law Paul’s penis size. As Paul puts it with a sneery smile, in a vastly unpleasant scene on his patio where he grows tomatoes fertilized with his own urine, “We’re the cherry tomato boys.”
He then insists on Asher eating one of the tomatoes. It’s that kind of show.
Fielder is at the forefront of cringe comedy, a subgenre that’s generally considered a phenomenon of the twenty-first century. It’s almost invariably traced back to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–present), Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show (2000–2004), and the British version of The Office (2000–2003), which was more agonizing to watch than the long-running American version (2005–2013), which nevertheless still qualifies. Fielder collaborated with Cohen on Who Is America? (2015–2018) and has carried on from there, continuing to combine reality TV and fictional elements in ever more painful ways with Nathan for You (2013–2017) and The Rehearsal (2022–present).
Many have tried to explain the sudden birth of this subgenre, including a book by Melissa Dahl called Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. They all have the usual caveats about how comedy always had “cringe” aspects to it, referring to the defining quality of vicarious embarrassment and shame that’s central to the subgenre. Reality TV and mockumentaries are often combined with cringe comedy, pointing up a revealing element of the form: its tendency to be brought uncomfortably close to our reality, to the point that Cohen’s outlandish fictional characters — Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, for example — were frequently mistaken for regular people.
The sense that we’re all on the verge of being involved in our own online “cringe” scenario lies at the heart of all social media consumption, which has long been a showcase for mass mockery and public shaming. Most of the time we’re safely witnessing the embarrassment of others presented in endlessly circulated memes and pile-ons, but we never know when it might be our turn. Remember Taylor Swift’s plea that everyone learn to embrace cringe behaviors for our own sakes? “Learn to live alongside cringe. No matter how hard you try to avoid being cringe you will look back on your life and cringe retrospectively,” the singer said.
Most of the stuff written about cringe comedy tries to find the heartwarming aspect of the phenomenon. It’s noted that in order to feel vicarious embarrassment and shame, we have to have empathy, and that’s a good thing. This is a very typical contemporary analysis, finding a way to congratulate ourselves for having the rock-bottom basics, the mere potential for human virtue: Hey, look, we’re not total sociopaths! We’re still capable of feeling for others!
But surely there’s another angle to the popularity of cringe comedy, which is a morbidly acute “hell is other people” reaction to twenty-first-century living. Not only are we overly embedded in the lives of others via social media and the unbearable 24/7 news cycle — we’re becoming ever more distressingly aware of our interdependence in a time of increasing climate change crises, brutal warfare, and mass refugees crammed into shrinking areas of land that can still sustain life.
And look who we’re interdependent with in these times of seeming endless crises! People we can’t stand at any price, as we know from the ideological warfare raging through “meatspace” and the ever crazier omnipresence of all media.
There’s a reason Dahl relates cringe comedy to horror, both forms that raise the question, “How can you stand to watch that?” “It functions almost like a horror movie,” Dahl says. “You get to indulge in this fear, but then it’s OK. You aren’t actually experiencing it, but you have this simulation.”
It reminds me of the tutorial aspects of the zombie film, always obvious to fans, but made manifest in mock-documentary works like The Zombie Survival Guide and the Center for Disease Control’s helpful publication during the pandemic on what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. We laugh, but we know we’re getting ready for the real-life horrors to come.