Those HGTV home renovation shows always bothered me. It’s not just them, either. There’s the fake altruistic feeling of Undercover Boss, where a CEO puts on a bad wig and cap to tell a worker who has been at the company for 15 years with no raise or promotion that they got two extra sick days and a coupon for Olive Garden. Here we have Showtime’s The Curse, which elects to veer into entertainingly absurd territory to fortify its satire.
The married couple of Asher and Whitney Seigel (Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone) are on a mission with their upcoming improvement show Flipanthropy (yup, that’s the name). Within this creation are the citizens of a town called Española and the Seigels' determination to turn it into the next epicenter of modern living. It’s not just buying houses and renovating them from the bottom up. The Seigels want to make net zero structures with mirrors on the outside to keep energy costs down. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, hold that thought.
Like with anything in the pilot episode “Land Of Enchantment,” there’s way more under the surface about these plans. These futuristic houses don’t decrease rental costs for long-time residents as much as they should. The last thing the citizens of Española need is a coffee shop, but that’s precisely what the network gives them. It serves as a sponsor for Flipanthropy itself and is only on a short-term lease. Ashley and Whitney swear up and down that it will be a job creation machine for the town, but the episode shows you many people don’t even know what the Starbucks-like code words for the coffee are.
An appealing aspect of this episode is the aloofness of trying to be a do-gooder running up with the need for entertainment. Sure, Asher and Whitney want a straightforward show that preaches about all the great things they are doing, but show producer Dougie (Benny Safdie) wants something more salacious and daring. He often interjects with rude directions and even pitched a reality show of his own called Love In the Third Degree, where 15 single women face off for the hand of one man later revealed to be a burn victim. It doesn’t stop there – even the actual show reactions feel uncomfortable. In the beginning, eye drops are forced on a mother fighting cancer to appear that she’s crying. At another point, a local man given a “net zero” house is offered a position to help the local church, only to find out he’s an atheist.
Maybe there’s no way to untangle these “acts of charity” with the need to look down on those you are reported to help. As much as the main characters claim they care, many implicit biases and the need to improve their brands inhibit any natural sympathy. It’s something both Fielder and Safdie work into this episode cleanly.
Perhaps Asher and Whitney believe in their hearts that this will be the greatest thing ever, but there are secrets they are trying to run from. Whitney permeates everything with a suffocating sense of positivity. That’s because her parents, Paul and Elizabeth (Corbin Bernsen and Constance Shulman) reputation as slumlords of an apartment complex. She is constantly trying to break from it and takes the halo away from wanting the best for the population that is clearly trying to survive.
Asher doesn’t feel he has any agency and often looks to Whitney for advice. Many of his miscues cause trouble for the couple and their show. While discussing their Española projects with a local reporter, Asher melts down and offends her. This leads him to offer up a “national story” (potentially involving another minority group) to kill the interview. The biggest ominous sign I’m sure will appear as a harbinger of doom for the show is Asher listening to Dougie and doing a staged donation exchange with a little girl.
He only has $100 (of course he does) and gives it to her – only to take it back off-camera and offer a $20 bill in exchange. It only helps that Asher is exceptionally awkward when he does it. That’s when the little girl says the magic words, “I CURSE YOU.” Now, Asher doesn’t know if this is the case, but this man (and people in the show) are fish out of water in this town. They have no idea of the customs that make it up and, frankly, don’t have an interest. Fielder and Safdie further place Asher’s prejudices to the test with the ATM. There’s a unique way to get it to work, and a local townsperson in the small restaurant knows how to do it.
Now, I don’t condone giving your PIN to anybody, let alone a complete stranger. However, this situation sets the tone for Asher’s character. He needs the money to make it up and not get cursed, but he is in a situation because if he doesn’t give the pin, it makes him feel like he’s better than everybody. In these situations, the brilliance of this premiere episode shines through.
If that wasn’t enough, Asher and Whitney have some complications in the bedroom due to, let’s say, size. It was highly awkward for Whitney’s dad Paul to discuss penis problems with Asher, especially giving them the nickname “cherry tomato boys.” The insane conversation they have underscores an even broader issue. Asher and Whitney need to buy more land because these houses on their own aren’t yielding enough money. Thus, the problem of acting in the best interest of Española is present. I can picture a town of all these future homes with no original citizens inside them. It’s what gentrification does. The concept operates inside the guise that everybody wins, but there is always a loser.
- Dougie is trying to put the moves on Whitney, and given their bedroom understanding, I wonder if there will be an awkward situation that calls for all three parties' involvement.
- John Medeski’s score gives off a horror/Alfred Hitchcock vibe. It adds to the element of things not being right and funny when Asher complains about his chicken penne in the car.
- I know it was used as a plot device, but I’m with Dougie. Who carries around cash, let alone that big of a bill anymore?