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HomeEntertainmentReview | ‘The Curse’ explores the ways HGTV can ruin your life

Review | ‘The Curse’ explores the ways HGTV can ruin your life

I’ve tried in vain to say what “The Curse” is about. This is cringe HGTV, I have written. Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder play an awkward couple hoping to single-handedly gentrify the New Mexico town of Española by hawking their energy-neutral “passive homes” on their new show, “Fliplanthropy.” But no summary captures the unease that accrues over 10 episodes of Fielder and Benny Safdie’s new series, which premieres Friday. It isn’t exactly a comedy. It feels wrong to call it a drama. “This is basically what I imagine ‘Twin Peaks’ is, even though I’ve never seen it,” a friend said. It’s sort of like, what if the creators of “The Comeback” adapted “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” I texted a colleague.

This may not be the most useful way to begin a review. It is, however, a reasonable approximation of what watching “The Curse” feels like.

The show starts with a shot of an Española resident named Fernando (Christopher Calderon) explaining he can’t find work and doesn’t make enough to pay for his mother’s cancer treatments. It’s a sad story. The perspective, however, is disorienting: The camera approaches Fernando through a window from outside his home, as if it’s spying. Once inside, the focuses switches from Fernando and his ailing mother to our protagonists, Whitney Siegel (Stone) and her husband, Asher (Fielder), who are sitting across from him and making a great show of listening sympathetically. “Jesus,” Asher says, just before his gaze alights on a decorative crucifix on the wall. He agonizes briefly and visibly before breaking “character” to request that the remark be left out.

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Whitney informs Fernando they have good news: They’ve found him a job! Stone grins expectantly. This is a key moment in the TV show we now understand they’re making. Fernando’s gratitude for the gift of gainful employment will bolster the couple’s narrative that they’re revolutionizing the way Americans live and use energy, and shielding the locals from the effects of the gentrification process they’re personally overseeing.

Fernando’s mother is, alas, unmoved. And so, over Asher’s mild protests (“She’s dying,” he observes), the director, Dougie Schecter (Benny Safdie), doctors her eyes with fake tears and instructs her to wipe them away. Whitney keeps her game face on through all this, her smile hardening slightly. It’s only when she and Asher walk away from the shoot that we hear her rail against the director’s slimy intervention.

It doesn’t feel great that Whitney’s revulsion at Dougie’s cheap trick mirrors ours so precisely. We met her at an unappealing moment, when she was anticipating a show of gratitude she didn’t get. It feels like we’ve fallen into accidental sympathy with someone we’re supposed to be mocking.

And that, really, is the strength of this extremely odd series from the tortuous minds behind “The Rehearsal” and “Uncut Gems.” The principals — soi-disant do-gooders who are clearly objects of satire, or should be — are somehow also functioning as point-of-view characters. They’re also, and this isn’t incidental, pretty smart. Whitney and Asher aren’t exactly avatars for a certain kind of liberal guilt, but they could be: They’re well-informed about the destructive effects of gentrification, conversant in the ways Native communities in New Mexico are exploited, sensitive to how over-policing decimates minority neighborhoods. They make decent arguments and do costly things for ostensibly noble reasons. Self-interest intrudes, of course, and the intense self-regard with which they do all this — an effect compounded by the cameras — is repellent.

It is also, at times, unpleasantly relatable.

The couple’s reasons for making the show differ. Asher’s are (basically) love and business; he hopes the show will drive up land values in Española so their investments pay off, and his ethical commitments are largely a by-product of his love for Whitney. Fielder, who has played many awkward, semi-fictionalized versions of himself in “reality” shows, brings all that experience to bear on Asher as the character struggles to play the role of himself. This is the darkest but warmest, most interesting combination of sincerity and grasping desperation he’s represented on-screen.

Stone, famous for her charisma and ease, moves here with the faltering diplomacy of an embattled brand. Which, indeed, Whitney is: As the spoiled daughter of wealthy New Mexico slumlords (played by Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman), she relies on her parents for financial and emotional support while monitoring Google to make sure any connection between them remains safely offline.

She is not, however, a simple hypocrite. Whitney is sometimes maddeningly sincere. Her convictions may be hobbled by moral vanity, but her integrity on certain fronts is real, so far as it goes: She insists that everything in the homes they sell be top quality, profits be damned, and has stringent requirements for potential home buyers, stipulating how they ought to behave toward neighbors, what they ought to believe, even which tribes they should support. She’s offputtingly insistent when she doggedly “courts” a fashionable Picuris Pueblo artist named Cara Durand (Nizhonniya Austin) whose work she wants to feature on the show.

Poised to exploit this discrepancy in the couple’s motivations for making “Fliplanthropy” is Dougie, the aforementioned director. An oily, deeply damaged widower whose history with Asher turns out to be more complicated than friendship, Dougie has a keen eye for conflict and a diabolical gift for drawing it out and torturing his prey. His arc is also, unfortunately — despite some punishingly long sequences in which Safdie channels the character’s abjection — the murkiest.

Then there’s the titular curse. Hikmah Warsame plays Nala, a little girl who “tiny curses” Asher when he treats her badly as part of a sequence of events I think of as one of the show’s high points. Nala, her sister Hani (Dahabo Ahmed) and her father, Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), end up having to deal with the Siegels regularly, and I perked up whenever Nala turned up on-screen to puncture the ambient dread.

These are strange ingredients. None of it goes where you expect, and that’s a mixed blessing. The series doesn’t so much subvert expectations as activate questions before scrambling its uses of point of view in ways that sometimes feel more messy than meaningfully experimental. The results can be discomfiting, as when the camera shows us two characters sitting in a parking lot through a bank window, with a teller noodling around in the foreground. The shot is almost suggestive of security camera footage, but not quite. The effect is a little sinister, but only a little. None of it amounts to anything. Nothing happens. No one turns out to be sitting in the spot that shot was taken from. (The soundtrack sometimes intensifies these tonal mismatches — John Medeski and Daniel Lopatin’s score routinely introduces moods that conflict with the explicit content of a scene.)

I like that particular instance, so it sounds meaner than I intend when I call this artful pointlessness, especially given how much of the series is thoughtful, disciplined, interesting. “The Curse” revels in anticlimax and stretches moments that don’t build to much. For the first few episodes, that felt like part of the point: Reality TV is so much about shaping “not much” into something and bending banal interactions into an aggressive and artificial arc. That interpretation falters in light of the conclusion, however. (I received all 10 episodes.)

It’s simply true, however, that a number of significant subplots fail to pay off or even properly conclude. And that many important issues the series introduces dissolve under all the irony and end up firmly subordinated to a story about a relationship — when it seemed like the series was invested in satirizing that precise tendency. Safdie and Fielder have been working on this idea since they met in 2017. The result feels collaborative but competitive in precisely the way “Fliplanthropy” does — with two strong, related but distinct sensibilities vying, not always harmoniously, for primacy.

The Curse (10 episodes) premieres Friday on Paramount Plus with Showtime and will debut on Showtime on Sunday, with new episodes airing weekly.

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