Home improvement television operates from a place of fantasy, where even those of us trapped by financial woes or negligent landlords can play dress-up in others’ whims and desires. Will that new kitchen help tidy up this lonely bachelor’s life, eventually attracting his new soulmate? That’s his fantasy, and watching his home transform, it becomes ours, too.
The Curse, a new 10-episode Showtime series, dwells in the familiar space of HGTVesque fantasy, mixed with the particular brand of cringe-worthy black comedy star and cocreator Nathan Fielder is known for. The show follows newlyweds Whitney and Asher Siegel (Emma Stone and Fielder) as they embark on Fliplanthropy: a pilot reality series about ‘flipping’ Española, a struggling New Mexico town, into a revitalized, eco-conscious community by building a series of energy-efficient houses that emphasize the ‘triple bottom line’ (“people, profit, planet”), which they’re documenting with the help of producer Dougie (played by cocreator Benny Safdie). While the episodes are packed with mercilessly awkward—and at times abusive—exchanges between the couple and the primarily Pueblo and Latinx residents whose neighborhoods they plan to redevelop, as well as even their own film crew, the show’s real satire stems from the fantasy of sustainability, and the magical thinking of development without displacement.
Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone star as wannabe HGTV show hosts in the new satirical Showtime series, The Curse.
Whitney, an architect who exudes Big Nonprofit Energy through her virtue-signaling do-gooderism, is the daughter of infamous Santa Fe slumlords who taps her parents’ ill-earned fortunes to purchase and demolish tax-delinquent properties to construct the new Passive Houses. Each is designed to regulate its own temperature (“Like a thermos!” she endlessly repeats) but sealed so tight that cracking a window or opening the front door upsets the entire system. The homes are ironically clad in a mirrored exterior that reflects harsh Southwest sun. (The couple’s general contractor is tasked with cleaning up the dead birds whose necks broke after flying into the shining facades.) Whitney and Asher use the profits from selling these houses to “subsidize” the rents from nearby occupants, whose bills continue to grow as the town slowly turns over to a wealthier clientele. The couple also purchase a decaying strip mall where they open their headquarters and lease two storefronts (a high-end Australian cafe and a jeans boutique) that employ residents while Fliplanthropy is filmed.
The show’s titular curse occurs when Asher, a vapid, milquetoast Wife Guy with a temper control problem, is instructed by Dougie to purchase a can of Sprite from a young girl named Nala (Hikmah Warsame) selling sodas in a parking lot. When Asher opens his wallet and discovers he only has a $100 bill, he hands it to Nala for the camera, but once Dougie gets the shot, Asher promptly demands it back saying he will get change and give her $20. Confused and betrayed, she belts, “I curse you,” setting off Asher’s series-wide paranoia.
Asher’s superstitious nature set behind a monotonous voice and empty eyes is only heightened by Whitney, whose vacuous laugh and meaningless repetitions of “that’s beautiful” in response to comments made by Indigenous residents builds for an exhausting relationship to watch on-screen. It’s effective, truly, especially as things go wrong: The shops brought in by the couple close temporarily after the pilot is shot; Whitney’s relationship with her notorious slumlord parents is called into focus during a local news interview; a focus group shown the pilot remark on how the show made them think about gentrification. “You see these auctions and you get excited and then you think, ‘this used to be someone’s home—what happened to them?’” remarks one focus group member. Asher takes these comments as the result of the curse, while Whitney immediately spins them as a “show that makes you think”—unlike those other HGTV shows.
The Curse centers around Asher and Whitney Siegel (Fielder and Stone) as they set out to film a house-flipping reality series about revitalizing a struggling New Mexico town by building a series of energy-efficient homes with mirrored facades.
Later, Whitney and Asher purchase a downtrodden home at auction to discover it is occupied illegally by Nala and her sister and father. The couple attempt to build a positive relationship with the family but it manifests, like their many other interactions with people of color in Española, as patronizing. Yet these ‘recipients’ are in on it: Nala’s family cautiously takes advantage of Whitney and Asher’s do-gooderism, accepting free rent while texting Asher late in the evening to replace smoke detector batteries. One particularly sympathetic character, Pueblo artist Cara Durand (Nizhonniya Austin), suffers Whitney’s backhanded compliments, fetishizing comments, and self-pitying gaslighting, but reluctantly accepts a job for $20,000 as an “Indigenous consultant” on the series. Despite these humiliations, Durand repeatedly refuses to recognize Whitney’s endless pleas to call her an “artist,” agonizing the architect who wants nothing more than to rise to Durand’s cultural status.
By contrast, Whitney and Asher behave aggressively toward potential buyers of their glimmering $850,000 houses: Whitney is enraged that their first buyer decides to swap out the induction stove for traditional gas; another couple is outright rejected from closing because they want air-conditioning units and refuse to sign a contract (or a “nonbinding letter of intent,” as Asher clarifies) to support the local Pueblo people in their legal battle over road easements. The couple eventually sell the home to a man who drives a truck with a Blue Lives Matter bumper sticker but also supports tribal rights and wildlife conservation. He wants a Passive House because it’s “off the grid.” Whitney protests the sale, repeatedly returning to the belief that these buyers should, as she says, “reflect the values of the community.” The overriding question, of course, is whether or not these are, actually, the community’s values.
Therein lies the central premise behind The Curse, a show that is as excruciatingly awkward to watch (binging might damper your weekend) as it is poignant. Enmeshed in the show’s racial politics and eventual demise of Whitney and Asher’s romance is a fundamental question about the fantasy behind home renovation and development projects. Whitney envisions Española—a place she screams at her parents from the back seat of their Mercedes SUV, is, “hers”—as a cohesive town wherein her values are also those of the community. But she and Asher force sustainable practices on this small town—shaming homebuyers for wanting a home cooler than 78 degrees and installing a new solar array on the local firehouse that results in rolling blackouts—without recognizing that their “fliplanthropy” comes at steep interpersonal costs for the community’s existing residents.
The Curse’s uncomfortable satire points to the ways in which the fantasy of renovation—renovation implying betterment—neglects the complexity of poverty, racism, housing scarcity, and the roles we inadvertently play in maintaining those realities. While Whitney’s privileged circumstances and performative ‘lefty’ values propel the plot, it’s Asher’s emptiness that characterizes their work. He follows Whitney blindly, repeating that she is the better of the two; he puts in motion her vision without critique and with few questions. What results are hermetically sealed houses of mirrors. I imagine that, had Fliplanthropy been a real HGTV program, it would likely resemble the likes of Windy City Rehab, a show bemoaned by Chicagoans for its hazardous, disruptive work sites, or Fixer Upper, blamed for Waco’s surge in property taxes. Such effects have barely grazed the series’ popularity; they are, after all, beloved by HGTV fans who embody the hosts’ visions and values. It’s their world, their fantasy, and we are all living in it.
Top photo by Beth Garrabrant/A24/Paramount+ with Showtime
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