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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Joel Golby

The Curse: only a name as big as Emma Stone could make TV this squirm-in-your-seat good

Emma Stone as Whitney Siegel in The Curse.
‘She really can show a whole range of emotion just with a tight fake smile’ … Emma Stone as Whitney Siegel in The Curse. Photograph: Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME

Sometimes, you really do feel they’ve made a show just for you. I think this is what the hyper-concept of “fandom” (which has receded a little in the last couple of years, have you noticed? You’re allowed to post that you don’t think Marvel is important without a teenager sending a bullet to your home address now) was really all about: millions, almost billions of people felt that, for example, Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Iron Man was just for them, and clutched it close to their chest like a rosary. They were all wrong, of course – no single film or TV show has ever been made without producers deciding there was enough of an audience to throw a million or two pounds at it – but it’s always nice to think that they are making culture just for you. Except for The Curse (Paramount+, from Saturday), which they have actually made just for me.

Let’s start with Nathan. Nathan Fielder, who elegantly pivoted from being a Comedy Central late-night cult-following demi-prankster to TV’s artist-in-chief last year with The Rehearsal, writes and stars and directs. I was always going to watch that happen. Then you’ve got Uncut Gems creator Benny Safdie playing a big slimy freak: I am never going to not watch that. Emma Stone is in there, continuing to be our generation’s finest mouth actor – she really can show a whole range of emotion just with a tight fake smile or a bulge of the eyes – and here she is on the same form that makes me rewatch Maniac every couple of years or, you know, won her an Oscar that time. And then it’s got an A24 production sheen – long gloopy scenes, camera angles the likes of which you have never seen before (you often get the truly troubling experience of feeling like a Peeping Tom when you watch this – the camera is poked through barely open windows, it watches them across galleries, it’s one table over from them at a restaurant – the direction is stalkerish) and a touch of 2023’s trendiest story engine, “magical realism”. Again: they made this in a lab for me. You can all watch it! But know it is for me.

It probably makes sense here to explain what The Curse actually is: well, it’s hour-long episodes where nothing much happens at all, except you start to experience a profound feeling of dread. Fielder and Stone play newlywed property developers Asher and Whitney Siegel, who are desperately trying to inject the city of Española, which lies somewhere between the border of Navajo Nation reservations and Mexico, with carbon-neutral homes and coffee shop jobs. (“We’re aware of the G-word,” Asher says, in a calamitous local news interview in the first episode.) Fielder’s Asher is intense, socially awkward, avaricious, capable of flights of chilling temper; Stone’s Whitney is a woo-woo, nice-to-meet-you! artist patron, the type of person who looks completely wrong and fake when they are anywhere other than LA. They are being followed around by Safdie’s TV producer Dougie, who is making a show about the couple (“It’s called … Flipanthropy!”) while dressed like a turn-of-the-millennium guitar tech. Then the curse sets in, and things start to wobble around.

This is the kind of TV that can only be made by names of this size, with this kind of track record of “trust the process”, and with great indulgence by the studio. The pacing is glacial, which for me is phenomenally refreshing to see on screen (they made it for me) while others might find it excruciating. The actual curse itself doesn’t really set in until the end of the second episode.

But I love it: there are so many scenes that should be one-minute but end up being seven, there is a lot of phenomenal stranger casting, and the well-meaning Siegels trying to imprint their “goodness” on to a destitute town manages to say things about power, the politics of being seen, middle-class liberal vanity and religion. Though you know it’s scripted – Emma Stone is there! Benny Safdie is wearing yet another ludicrous wig! – the way it’s been made really blurs that line: there’s a scene early on that is shot as if being watched on CCTV, and it’s tense and exhilarating and squirm-in-your-seat good. Do I really know what’s happening? No. Am I enjoying being slowly told about a horror that is coming? Well, also sort of no. Am I glad they are making TV just for me now? Oh, absolutely yes. I think that’s really, really, really nice of them to do.

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