The Curse: Season 1 REVIEW – Tainted Ground

Nathan Fielder gets a bit too proud of himself.

the curse nathan fielder emma stone

The Curse has a rare ability to make completely anodyne scenes and settings genuinely feel cursed. This is largely a matter of some severely discordant music, but whatever the tricks used there’s no denying they’re effective. And this is compounded by the amount of time characters spend loitering uneasily in liminal spaces, typically parking lots or actually in a car in transition (experiences media-people probably know all too well), or framed disconcertingly through doorways or mirrors.

This is why it’s so bizarre that, having brought this degree of care to its construction, The Curse falls down completely on a script level. Long, long stretches of it are nothing more than Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone’s unlikeable gentrifying power-couple staggering through ordinary interactions. You can argue that this is the point, that the real curse is the way they are, but this doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to watch.

Most frustrating is the fact that it demonstrates it can do better. Fielder going to give some money to a disadvantaged little girl, only to find he only has a hundred-dollar bill on him, is a classically Fielderesque scenario, squirm-inducingly cringemaking but at the same time all too understandable. Yes, go off and get some smaller bills from the ATM, oh God, it’s got a transaction fee, this is the kind of exquisite torture that cannot help but raise a chuckle simply because it’s not happening to you.

The dead giveaway is that The Curse wheels that out for the first episode (and made much of it in the trailer), and only sporadically even attempts anything so straightforwardly funny. Straightforward gags or yuks can get old, but as it turns out they have a much longer shelf-life than yet another uncomfortably protracted conversation shot through ferns.

More usually, The Curse will bring up something rich and fat with the potential of being another excruciating moment like that one – only to simply cut away to something else, and likely as not, never to return to the concept again. So if you do find something you like (in my case, the Native American fellow who turns on the stereotype to have a bit of fun with Stone’s wet liberal), then enjoy it while you can, because there won’t be much of it.

The underlying dramatic tension, the question on which all The Curse’s dramatic proceedings turn, is whether Fielder and Stone’s characters will be outed as the horrible media-class ticks they so clearly are. But instead of developing this idea, it simply gives us more and more examples of them being awful TV gremlins, seemingly unwilling to believe we can possibly get it.

Thanks to this throwing-things-at-the-wall approach, on the rare occasion when any of The Curse’s myriad sources of tension are resolved (or even come to anything at all) it seems more like an accident. And this isn’t in the sense of ‘it makes this look effortless’, it’s in the sense of ‘they’re hoping it’ll stick’, as these quasi-resolutions almost invariably come with no catharsis, just the same hazy sense of ‘and now they’re doing this’.

The exploitative nature of reality TV is, by now, fairly well-known, so one would hope The Curse doesn’t believe it’s issuing some hard-hitting expose. It does attempt to meditate on the intersection between reality TV and actual reality, but the furthest it’s willing to go here is a trite ‘these people are phonies’, a point it makes satisfactorily in the cold open of the first episode. It does not need multiple further hours demonstrating the same thing, yet that’s what’s tacked on.

If it was more cohesively crafted, if one moment led to the next and if it was building to something, The Curse could have been something quite remarkable. If not a pleasant watch, then at least an interesting watch, one of those unheimlich experiences where nothing is quite as it should be. But too much is simply ‘so that just happened’, waving these unconnected moments around like a giant foam finger and, seemingly, waiting for the applause.

And again, when they do actually tie things together, it can be very funny indeed – can be. Especially when this comes as supreme relief from its general air of skeevy opression. But The Curse treats its ongoing plotlines like neglected children, only sporadically deigning to return to something it set up earlier.

Perhaps at some point in production, it seemed that this vague, meandering narrative structure matched well with the spooky, unmoored presentation. On paper, it might sound like a potential winning formula, but in practice it’s just a slog to get through. By the time anything started paying off, and there wasn’t much of that, all it could raise was a sigh.

It’s all so loosely connected that at times it feels like a sketch show, but one which would kill for the one-to-one ratio of simply being hit-and-miss. Quite simply, it’s an awful lot of chaff for very little wheat, which is a formula that moves into very dangerous territory when the chaff is all so deliberately, carefully off-putting and actively unpleasant to sit through.

Thanks to this fundamental nature of The Curse, I’m reluctant even to praise the performances, even though they’re painfully believable throughout – because they’re performances as such prize turds. Unsympathetic comedy protagonists can be some of the funniest around, but only if they’re actually doing funny things, rather than just wobbling around being unsympathetic as if that’s a draw in and of itself.

Remarkably it seems Nathan Fielder is significantly better at creating excruciatingly awkward (that is to say, funny) situations with the wildcard of a real person in the mix, rather than in a completely scripted landscape where he’s in control of every aspect of it. A lot of criticism has identified The Curse as Fielder’s apology of sorts for messing with the hapless stooges in Nathan For You – I would rather it be an apology for The Curse.

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the curse nathan fielder emma stone
A bottled version of all the excruciating tedium that making reality TV actually involves, with all of the genre’s downsides and none of the charm.