A Case for Enjoying ‘The Curse,’ Showtime’s Absurdist Take on Art and Media
Why the artist in the show may be the key to everything, including That Ending.
Why the artist in the show may be the key to everything, including That Ending.
There’s a good reason for me to write here, in an art magazine, about The Curse—the strange, loved-and-hated, just-ended show on Showtime from Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie. The Curse does prominently feature art. What’s more, its take on contemporary art is much more knowing than the typical “look at these frauds” line that Hollywood takes.
In fact, it may be one of the best TV satires about art ever, specifically because it is not always clear that what we are looking at is satire, or where satire ends and reality begins.
The second episode of the show (“Pressure’s Looking So Good”) features an art installation that really sticks in the brain. Our protagonist couple, Asher (Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone), are trying to get an HGTV show off the ground called Fliplanthropy, with the premise of bettering a New Mexico neighborhood through selling eco-friendly “passive homes” (the mirror-clad design, dismayingly to Whitney, is dinged as derivative of artist Doug Aitken’s mirrored Mirage house). As part of marketing the real-estate project as virtuous rather than predatory, they want to incorporate art, specifically the art of a local rising Native artist Cara Durand (Nizhonniya Austin).
So they go to Cara’s gallery opening to try to build some ties of trust. The show includes a performance piece where the artist sits in a teepee, and visitors enter one at a time. As they sit opposite her in silence, she solemnly cuts a few slices of turkey with a meat-slicer, and hands them to the guest on a plate. Then she does nothing, letting the guest decide how to react. Whitney, taking her turn in the tent, is visibly confused. Attempting to be game, she eats the meat—at which point Cara screams. And the performance is over, with Whitney leaving confused and unsure if she has done something wrong.
This is honestly a great fake work of art. But the unreadability of it, and the anxiety that it inspires, also condenses the effect of The Curse as a whole, and what I like about it. I like that at many, many moments throughout the show it achieves an extraordinarily unsettling feeling, where I don’t know whether to laugh or to be sad, though you frequently cringe as Asher and Whitney stumble agonizingly through the process of assembling Fliplanthropy.
This type of effect is not what everyone wants out of their entertainment—The Curse is one stinky cheese. I personally think the show is extraordinary, but as far as I can tell the viewership numbers are smallish, and it’s nowhere near as watched as, say, HBO’s lumbering, no-stakes costume drama The Gilded Age.
Why is the sensibility represented by The Curse so compelling to me and a subset of people around me, but so illegible or even repellant to others? In my mind, this debate goes back to Nathan For You (2013–2017), Fielder’s star-making Comedy Central show.
There are episodes of Nathan For You, like “Smokers Allowed” where a single random night at a bar is restaged as immersive theater (to allow the bar to be smoker-friendly, because smoking is only permitted in a theater context), that are astonishingly like performance art—good performance art. That vibe was pushed even further in Fielder’s follow-up for HBO, The Rehearsal (2022)—but already by the time of the experimental climax of Nathan For You, “Finding Francis,” Fielder had achieved a level of unclassifiable eeriness that approximates what you get in The Curse, pushing beyond something that you could call comedy exactly, without not being comedy either.
The people I know who hate Nathan For You or The Rehearsal view Fielder as a cynical media operative playing the “real” people in the show for laughs. There is something to that. These shows flatter the superior self-image of an audience that views itself as sophisticated.
What has always saved Fielder’s work from its more condescending moments, for me, is the way his persona turns the mirror back on that knowing, media-savvy mindset—maybe even turning the mirror around to find no real reflection there, like a vampire. Self-conscious and stilted, Fielder performs the role of someone who barely knows how to act “real” himself, whose treatment of life as a performance makes him alienated from human connection. The entire creative trajectory from Nathan For You to The Rehearsal to The Curse makes exploring the unsettling implications of this state more and more the central subject.
Clearly, the core audience for The Curse has to be the kind of people who find recognizable characters in aspiring TV hosts Asher and Whitney, or mercenary filmmaker Dougie (Safdie), or frustrated conceptual artist Cara. This is a cultural micro-climate defined by people who have the combination of education, resources, status, and self-importance to see their ambitions in the cultural apparatus, but who also aren’t secure within it. A level of existential disorientation and fakeness has settled over ordinary life, because social media and reality TV and the general self-as-brand mindset have blurred the line between genuine feeling and performance at a very intimate level.
That sensibility, it seems to me, is the real “curse” in The Curse.
Which brings us to the series’s remarkable, much-debated final episode.
#SpoilerAlert here, obviously…
The finale of The Curse sees the intense vérité style that co-creator Benny Safdie brings to the show veer into magic-realist territory. Gravity reverses for Asher and, after an excruciatingly extended and vivid sequence, he literally falls upwards to his death. (While people have reached for Twin Peaks: The Return as a precedent in peak-TV weirdness, the effect is actually much closer to the classic Surrealism of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where the guests of a bourgeois dinner party suddenly find themselves inexplicably unable to leave, yielding slowly unfolding horrors.)
What does it mean? One contingent of critics charges that The Curse’s ending is a cop-out, with Safdie and Fielder defaulting to gimmickry instead of daring to make a definitive statement about the “troubling themes” of the rest of the show—seemingly wanting something like America Ferrera’s feminist monologue from Barbie. Another contingent goes overboard with explainers unpacking the exact symbolism of this climax, in a way that makes me want to email around a PDF of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.”
I do have my own reading of why the show’s unexplained left turn makes sense, thematically: The Curse is about people negotiating the line between reality and fantasy. It ends when reality breaks, fantasy and reality merging catastrophically.
But “reading” the finale like this may also miss the point. Let’s go back to that artwork by Cara.
At the end of Episode 8 (“Down and Dirty”), Stone’s character asks Cara to sit with her, pretending to have a casual chat for the cameras (“There’s basically no footage of my real life outside the show, outside of Asher—and I have one,” she explained, unconvincingly, in roping Cara into the encounter earlier. “And I just want to show that.”) In an excruciating sequence, Whitney coaches Cara on how to praise her, eventually making her say the phrase, “Your homes are so unique and so important as a piece of art, and I couldn’t be more proud to have my work displayed inside.”
A beat later, trying to feign the actual back-and-forth of talking to an artistic peer, she asks Cara to explain the earlier “teepee performance.” With barely disguised distaste, Cara lays it out for her: “The slicing of the meat is me giving pieces of myself to people, whether I want to or not. And as a Native person, that’s basically what you are doing every day, just slicing off pieces of yourself. And it’s exhausting. And whether they ate it or not is totally up to them—and you ate it.”
“That was so beautiful,” Whitney says cluelessly, visibly struggling, once more, to know the right way to act.
Obviously, the staged compliment and the forced explanation redouble the sense of Cara being forced to give up pieces of herself. More importantly, the interpretation Cara gives is clearly accurate—but, also clearly, the intended impact of the performance was inseparable from making the viewer sit with the discomfort, to actually think through their own implication. One can, in this case, get the point and negate the point at once.
The fallout from that awkward encounter lingers in the background of the finale. “Cara is being profiled in the New York Times for quitting art,” Whitney complains to Asher early in the episode. “So, quitting art is an art piece now?” (It is: The idea is shades of Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece.)
Whitney is incredulous that Cara’s gesture of “quitting the art world” is being acclaimed as a statement about the exploitation of Native culture—even though, from what we’ve seen, it’s likely Whitney and Asher’s exploitation of her art as a prop was part of what made her doubt her career’s value. And even though Cara all but gave Whitney the key to understand this fact in her explanation of the “teepee performance.”
We also learn here that Asher and Whitney’s show has been consigned to the limbo of HGTV’s online-only offerings. The fact that Cara’s rejection of the phony art world gets the kind of attention that the carefully constructed narrative of their show cannot manage is an inversion of how they thought the world worked.
And a few scenes later, the laws of physics also invert. We get Asher’s climactic exodus from the physical world, which is also the show’s exit from hyperrealism to surrealism.
You can definitely go back over The Curse and try to explain why this seemingly out-of-nowhere ending actually makes logical sense, smoothing over its sheer freakishness. But you also have to admit that, on some level, the reality-reversal comes out of nowhere because it is meant to come from out of nowhere. If you wanted to use a bit of jargon, you could use the term “Brechtian rupture” here: a deliberately alienating violation of conventions meant to shock the audience into thinking more deeply about what they are watching.
We definitely know from Whitney’s reaction to Cara’s performance that the show is thinking about just how hard it is to inspire meaningful reflection in a certain kind of contemporary viewer.
In “Against Interpretation,” Sontag read the tendency to consume art by reducing it to a clean, “correct” reading as a symptom of terminal media over-saturation: “Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us… All the conditions of modern life—its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.” She was writing about the tendency to reduce everything to “content” in 1966—well before the exponentially more excessive world of digital “content” today, and its associated flood of recaps and reactions and snap analysis.
“Art is about… art is about… sometimes you have to go to extreme lengths to make your point,” Asher says to Whitney early in the final episode, ineptly trying to explain why Cara exiting art can be considered art. There are all kinds of points and “troubling themes” The Curse might want its audience to think about. But above and behind them all there’s a set of fundamental questions about what it means to make art right now: How to make a piece of media that connects with the hyper-mediatized demographic? How far do you have to push things so that someone can feel a work of art meaningfully? How do you make something that isn’t reduced to a pat reading so fast that it vanishes as everyone rushes on to the next thing? To me, the horror and the absurdism of the end of The Curse feels like it is about just how paradoxically, violently far out you have to go to even begin to find answers.
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