“Damn” holds a mirror up to marriage
The exterior mirrors of the homes for sale in the new Showtime drama “The Curse” are the first indication of the series’ interest in mutilation. They reflect the nearby trees and clear New Mexico skies, an illusion that leads some unsuspecting birds to an early death. To the human eye, their effect, like the effect of the display itself, is more than simple disorientation. The homes are the futuristic products of Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone), an ambitious real estate developer who views her ultra-sustainable, sci-fi on the outside, cozy on the inside cottages as works of art. But the buildings are expensive to build and are attractive. It’s a frivolous project that Whitney’s parents can’t guarantee forever, even if they are slumlord millionaires. She and her husband, Asher (Nathan Felder), believe that hosting the HGTV series will solve their problems, while also increasing demand for Whitney’s designs and raising the national profile of the small Spanish town. Always conscious of optics, they highlight their support of the community and their sincere efforts to make up for gentrification — so much so that their show, “Flip-lanthropy,” is broccoli, not candy. Their producer, Dougie (Benny Safdie), decides the best way to save him is by digging into the conflict between his two “personalities.” There is a lot more to explore than the couple wants to believe.
Under its influence, “Flip-lanthropy” becomes a mirror of a different kind—a mirror of the repressed, mismatched tensions between the newlyweds. Dougie, who has a wicked sense of story as well as tragic reasons to avoid any semblance of marital bliss, notes how often the TV Whitney rolls her eyes at her socially awkward husband when she thinks no one’s looking. She’s definitely camera-ready, but Usher was chosen by a network focus group. When one participant noted that the couple had no sexual tension, giving voice to the disconnect that Whitney had tried to ignore, she couldn’t help but focus her attention on her partner’s flaws. Dougie had her permission—but not Asher’s—to design their on-screen dynamic around her apparent superiority. Putting together the narrative he wanted involved creative use of hot mics, subtle pay-offs of day players, and surreptitiously filmed confessions. But even an artificial genre like reality TV can bring out the truth.
“The Curse,” created by Felder and Safdie, establishes the former as one of the most innovative television auteurs of the past decade. The ten-part series doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, play with form as deftly as Fielder’s previous outings, “Nathan for You” and “The Rehearsal,” in which he starred as an inept, incompetent host who puts on a show. His “services” to people in distress. On “Nathan for You,” he positions himself as the would-be savior of struggling small businesses throughout Los Angeles. In “Rehearsal,” in which he helped his subjects prepare for difficult confessions or experience alternative lives through complex experiments, he took the same role — and the documentary comedy genre — to absurd and sometimes disturbing extremes.
Felder continues to expand and complicate that character’s possibilities in The Curse. The show’s overt acknowledgment of race and class may be its own guilt; Although he avoided the truth at the time, many of the struggling businesses he fiddled with in “Nathan for You” appeared to be owned by immigrants or people of color. (When the prank show originally aired, the memory of my father’s failed restaurant was still a fresh wound; for much of its run, the corporate-backed comedian making light of people’s imperiled livelihoods seemed unwatchable.) The sympathy one might feel for Asher as the junior partner in his marriage, his clumsy conditional alliance and capacity for harm always front and center. There’s something clever about bringing together disparate institutions rife with potential abuses of power: television production, the art world, even marriage.
For a series with such abstract thematic ambitions, The Curse proves surprisingly poignant, largely due to the depth of emotion Asher reveals as his relationship unravels. By fully embodying the character rather than playing a heightened version of himself, Felder shows off his acting chops like never before; Its mysterious, still temporary, disorienting effect obscures the emotions flowing beneath it. Stone and Safdie are also perfectly cast, their roles tailored to their individual strengths. She is irresistible when a desperate and trivial desire is shown; Untrustworthiness radiates from him like a dark aura, or a stubborn BO
“The Curse” takes its title from a small act of revenge committed by a young girl named Nala (Hikma Warsame) in the parking lot of a store. When Dougie finds out that Nala is selling soda cans to passersby, he convinces Asher to approach her for a scene. Asher only has a hundred-dollar bill in his wallet, so he allows himself to be filmed handing her the money, then takes it back once Dougie gets the shot. The girl wishes him harm and he disappears. Strange coincidences begin to mount – and after Asher buys a plot of land where Nala and her family used to sit, he unwittingly becomes the property’s owner. He couldn’t shake the idea that Nala had derailed his life, even if he had the power to kick her out in a heartbeat. Likewise, Whitney, despite her generational wealth and a series-finale demand from HGTV, longs for the approval of an acquaintance named Kara (Nizonia Austin), a local performer who envies her brash reputation and supposed race credibility. White’s efforts to buy her friendship—and leverage their relationship for on-air “authenticity”—reveal the white woman’s transactional approach to social justice. But “Damn” is better at mocking aristocrats than humanizing aristocrats. As in the first season of The White Lotus, the emphasis on the moral resilience of the privileged gives little attention to characters of color, who are often forced into moments of conspicuous silence or undisguised passivity. (The underdeveloped role of Nala’s father, played by the talented Barkhad Abdi, is a small but severe disappointment.)
That leaves Whitney and Asher’s slowly crumbling marriage as the most consistently compelling story. It’s not hard to find messages from the millennial obsession with virtue signaling in popular culture; Even rarer is a multi-faceted picture that highlights how moral imbalance can poison a relationship. When Asher described Nala and her family as “homeless” while relaying the day’s events to Whitney, she immediately asked him to use the term “homeless” instead. Usher would be the first to bring up the truism that Whitney inspires him to be a better person. “Damn” cleverly asks: What natural resentment arises when both parties believe this to be the case? Whitney feels angry about having to constantly prod her husband to do good; In fact, she’s a willful naive who makes him do the dirty work for her, and then looks down on him for getting his hands dirty. To avoid feeling like a complete fool, Asher compulsively lies to her, rehashing everyday events to inflate his own goodness or heroism. He supports her unconditionally, in his own irreverent way, and blows up at anyone—a potential buyer, a TV reporter mid-interview—who fails to treat her as carefully as he does. When she announces that she is pregnant, he says to her: “You are happy,” as if he desires this. She does not conflict with him. But he also knows to ask the question: “You still love me, right?” ♦