The Curse as Nathan Fielder's Penance
I’m perpetually torn about the concept of “not for me,” the response to a given piece of art that suggests that there’s nothing necessarily deficient with it but rather that I myself don’t connect with it and that’s fine. On the one hand, I have experienced exactly that feeling so many times in life that I can’t doubt the utility of the concept. Ariana Grande’s music is not for me; the kind of fiction that James Wood likes is not for me; the collective work of Danny McBride, I’m genuinely sorry to say, is not for me. “Not for me” is a pleasant kind of critical detente in a world full of shouting, and I get it.
And yet I also think we badly need criticism that goes beyond “not for me,” in 2023, as pop culture populism has remade the artistic landscape and left us in a position where (to pick an example) K-pop essentially does not receive negative reviews in professional publications, ever. This is a problem, for one thing, because critical standards are a prerequisite for critical respect; in their various online forums, K-pop fans have noticed that their preferred music does not receive negative reviews and correctly noted that this is not a condition that indicates actual adult appreciation. And in a world where angry stans prowl the internet, looking for apostates to scourge, refusing to hide out in “not for me” becomes a statement of personal integrity, of a kind. Now, with the streaming economy officially deeply ill, we’re facing a contraction in the production of TV and movies, which will be painful but was always probably inevitable. Under those conditions, the critical role of praising good and criticizing bad will be more important than ever, as the curatorial function will help decide what gets made and what doesn’t. The critical chumminess of the “Peak TV” era, where much of the community of professional TV critics seemed content to act as smiling boosters for the entire industry, isn’t going to cut it. And, as I’ve said over and over again, the statement “this is good” can have no meaning if it is not sometimes matched with “this is bad.”
I clear my throat in that way in anticipation of revealing a shameful fact: I get nothing from Nathan Fielder’s TV shows. In a dim and distant sense, my brain registers what everyone else finds so funny, but it never connects. I recognize the ambitions of Nathan for You and The Rehearsal, which are considerably grander that you might figure from their formats, and I do enjoy taking in what is so clearly a unique and incredibly exacting personal creative vision. (Fielder really knows what he wants.) But that’s a cold kind of praise, and indeed the shows leave me cold. Perhaps the issue is that both are considered cringe comedy, and they just don’t make me cringe, unlike (say) the sublimely stupid and low-ambition Impractical Jokers. They do often make me wince, and while cringe comedy is a real thing, wince comedy isn’t. This isn’t at all an unheard of condition for me; I had an ex-girlfriend who, like many people, thought the show Arrested Development was the funniest thing she had ever seen. When we watched it together, I felt the jokes bounce of me like cannonballs off the hull of the USS Constitution. There were things happening that I thought should be funny to me in the abstract, but I never felt anything, which was like taking shrooms that are a little too old and never tripping. Comedy is so weird and specific and inscrutable that I’m very sure that the failure to laugh is mostly my own in both of those cases.
The complication here is that I have a lot of moral reservations about Fielder’s project, because I think the basic reality that people don’t want to admit to is that he is in fact making fun of the real people who show up in his shows, and the audience laughs its biggest laughs when he does. I’m sure this will cause a lot of consternation but I’m completely convinced that it’s true. I’ve found that the whole edifice of TV recapping and reviewing has engaged with both shows, but especially with The Rehearsal, as a kind of guilt-laundering mechanism for the audience. The analysis of those shows tends to pile on layer after layer of academic complexity, which helps people to avoid the disquieting reality that what they like best about them is simply the weirdness of the real human beings who wander into the episodes and the way Fielder exposes it. The breakout star of the first season of The Rehearsal was Robbin, a Toyota-obsessed numerology enthusiast who had that invaluable quality in 21st-century comedy, a profound lack of self-knowledge. And I think people loved Robbin because they were laughing at him. It’s here that some will say that Robbin and others are viewed affectionately by these shows, but I just can’t get there; affection is just too foreign to Fielder’s dynamic. I think shows like Telemarketers (which I enjoyed) and How To With John Wilson (which also bounced off of me) have affection for the people who wander into the frame, generally, but I strongly suspect that people enjoy Fielder’s shows so much because they care more about the absurdity and the laughs than protecting anyone in that way. I don’t see affection in his shows. I just don’t. You are perfectly free to disagree.
And let me quickly say - that’s not an illegitimate basis for a TV series or for comedy in genral, and it’s not quite why I don’t get much out of his shows. Comedy isn’t beanbag, and the false “punching up vs. punching down” binary is a particularly bad fit, as one of the essential roles comedy performs is troubling simplistic notions of power and agency. I have moral qualms about what Fielder does, but I’ve had moral qualms about a lot of the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen and I could easily see myself laughing along to The Rehearsal as I go “hmmmm” like Marge Simpson. It just happens that I don’t. What I do think would be healthier, though, is if people who watched Fielder’s shows, and especially people who recapped and reviewed them, were a little more willing to admit to the moral complications at hand. And I especially think an essential part of Fielder’s shtick is to cover the mockery of rubes in several layers of irony and knowingness and misdirection to make it palatable for the kind of TV-watching sophisticates who define mass entertainment culture. My completely unfair and deeply presumptuous theory is that Fielder’s new scripted Showtime series The Curse is, in some convoluted sense, his apology for exactly that element of his work.
The Curse, co-created by Benny Safdie (that’s Prom Date Safdie, not Geico Caveman Safdie) and co-starring Emma Stone, is the story of Asher and Whitney, a galactically unpleasant couple who have leveraged aspirational liberal influencer lifestyles into mere affluence; the drama of The Curse stems from their desire to go from affluent to genuinely rich, without (appearing to) betray their vague-but-passionate social justice politics. They’ve moved to a small, mostly-brown town in New Mexico that’s seen some recent invasions from white people with money who are looking for desert living and quality Mexican food. The drama of the show - and, ostensibly, the comedy - stems from the way Asher and Whitney try to perform socially conscious colonization despite the fact that they are precisely the people they don’t want to be. Whitney, in particular, strikes me as true to life despite all the exaggeration, and to a certain species of educated white women who have very real and deep commitment to theoretical progressive values but who don’t know how to live those values other than through fretfully obsessing over them all the time. (I’ve known a lot of people like that.) Asher’s politics are much more straightforwardly bullshit; he and Whitney are trying to get a house-flipping show off the ground, and he understands that social-justice signaling is just part of that hustle. Through one episode, the conflict and the fun of the show seems to lie in their conflicting levels of self-deception.
The titular curse occurs when Asher, trying to generate some good optics in the presence of a TV crew, goes to give money to a young girl peddling soda in a parking lot. He discovers however that he only has a $100 bill in his wallet, which he gives to her as the camera rolls, then takes back afterwards. In response, she says “I curse you.” Where exactly that’s going, I couldn’t tell you. Safdie plays the oily producer of their would-be HGTV show; I can’t decide if he grounds the whole proceedings or if he just feels like he’s been pulled in from another show. Ultimately, I’m interested in the series and want to see where it goes. The developers must be aware that the lead characters they’ve created are pure bowling pins, set up simply to be knocked down again and again. If they don’t… I don’t know. Satire can work with big exaggerated caricatures, but this show is too dedicated to parsing fine human details for that to work. I’m guessing that Whitney, at least, will be humanized down the line. If not, my concern is that this is simply a parody of a particular kind of person that’s being presented to an audience full of that exact kind of person, who can then derive self-satisfaction as they chuckle at the foibles of people made in their image. That’s a little gross, in a different way than Fielder’s other shows.
I’m much more interested in my sense that Fielder is making himself the butt of all the jokes, after a decade of pulling ordinary people awkwardly into the attention of a merciless national audience. Asher is so serially unpleasant, so overstuffed and petty and unlikable, that it feels like one of those Trump stand-in characters people have been lazily shoving into their shows and movies since 2016. The big tell here is Asher’s micro-penis. (You see, Asher has a tiny penis, and must use a dildo to pleasure Whitney.) That, to me, felt like a hat on a hat, like making the subtext text, in more ways than one. The central characters of The Curse, so far, don’t appear to be people we’re supposed to feel any sympathy for, though as I said I’m guessing that will change, at least with Whitney. After one episode, though, they look more like a depiction of what Fielder might imagine his audience looks like in his darker moment. By making this a comedy of gentrification manners, Fielder and Safdie have collected the lowest of low-hanging fruit, particularly given that no one rails against gentrification more loudly than the gentry. It’s a given that a substantial portion of the audience of The Curse will be watching this pointed satire on the displacement of poor people of color from the vantage of their tony apartments in Bed Stuy and Echo Park. And I wonder if that makes the show both Fielder’s penance for all the Robbins in his past and also a salvo against those who laughed at them.
All of that, ultimately, is why I think (the first episode of) The Curse doesn’t really work: because I think Fielder does in fact make fun of regular people in his other shows and because I think his audience enjoys laughing when he does so. The Curse is, at heart, the attempt of a man in that position to make sure that everyone knows the joke is firmly on him. But that makes the whole project feel hollow; it’s not true to his actual comedic impulses. If you’ll forgive me for an incredibly strained analogy, it reminds me of when Metallica cut their hair and started, like, making songs that were sequels to other songs. It’s a kind of self-conscious step away from type that is admirable for its adventurousness but fundamentally false in its execution. As I said, I just don’t connect with Fielder’s work, in a way that says more about my weird brain than anything else. (Interestingly, I also don’t really love Safdie’s films Good Time and Uncut Gems, both of which felt like three-quarters of a film to me; with each, I kept wondering if there was a missing reel I hadn’t seen.) But beyond my own tastes, I suspect I would prefer if Fielder would be Fielder, and if his audience could be honest that the deepest laughs they get from him come when he most effectively reveals a real person’s buffoonery.
But, you know, there’s a lot more episodes to come. We’ll see where The Curse goes in the long run.