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Charming and mysterious, 'The Curse' is a real estate venture worth buying into

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Nathan Fielder's recent TV series, HBO's "The Rehearsal," was a genre-bending comedy that had amusing reality TV conventions and techniques to affect people's lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. He stars in his new venture, "The Curse," along with his co-creator Benny Safdie and Emma Stone. "The Curse" premiered Sunday on Showtime and is streaming on Paramount+. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Anyone who saw and enjoyed Nathan Fielder's last series, "The Rehearsal," has a good head start on what to expect from his new series, "The Curse." He delights in putting himself in uncomfortable positions and making himself look either abrasive or pitiable or some combination of both. He's like Larry David playing an aggressively confrontational version of himself in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," except that in Larry David's hands, no matter how cringeworthy things get, you know it's a comedy. With Nathan Fielder in "The Curse," that's not so clear.

"The Curse" is about a team of would-be TV producers trying to make and sell a pilot for a cable network real estate series about the homes they're building. The gimmick is that the homes are called passive - off the grid, energy-ultra-efficient and sleekly designed inside and out. These model homes have been built in Espanola, N.M., and there are issues of Native land rights, gentrification and other things. But Whitney, played with so many subtle layers by Emma Stone, has the deep pockets to finance this because of her wealthy parents who made their fortune in real estate but even less commendably.

Whitney has recently married Asher Siegel, who's played by Nathan Fielder, and Ash and his childhood friend Dougie, played by Benny Safdie, have concocted a scheme to finance these new passive homes by building a TV show around their sales and community. The idea seems reasonable except for Ash's personality, which surfaces in full force while he and Whitney are interviewed by a TV reporter about their new home development project. The reporter asks about Whitney's parents and their real estate history, and when she asks a second time, Ash explodes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CURSE")

EMMA STONE: (As Whitney Siegel) Our focus is on Espanola.

TESSA MENTUS: (As Monica Perez) I see. Have you thought about potentially talking to your parents, though, about how maybe they...

NATHAN FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) We're here to talk about us today, OK? What do your parents do? Just curious - what do they do?

MENTUS: (As Monica Perez) My mom's a nurse, and my dad actually abandoned us when I was really young, so I don't know what he's doing right now.

STONE: (As Whitney Siegel) I'm so sorry about your father. That must have been very hard.

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) How would you feel if I asked you about your father and kept asking more about that? I'm not going to, but I'm making a point. You're not him, right? You're your own woman. You're smart. You're intelligent. You're beautiful. You're your own woman. And so are we. We're the Siegels. We're not slumlords. So let's talk about us, OK? Look at me when I'm talking to you, OK? Don't look at her. I'm the one talking. So you should look at me because when you don't look at me, it makes me feel like you're not listening and not registering the things I'm saying. It's just common courtesy. It's a little rude to do. But we're here to talk. We're just talking. And this is great. And we're talking about the community, and we're here for the community today. And that's just so exciting. And that's the point. So let's continue.

MENTUS: (As Monica Perez) All right. You know, I think we're good.

BIANCULLI: That is just so unsettling to watch. And there are many scenes like that - sex scenes that feel embarrassingly awkward, arguments that seem painfully real and recreated scenes staged for the show within the show that play as painfully fake. And there are moments so surprising that to describe them would be to rob them of their impact. But if you watch even the first episode, you'll register some disbelief that you actually saw what you think you just saw. But you did.

Fielder and Safdie created this series and co-wrote much of it, and Fielder directs most episodes in a style that captures reality TV so perfectly that even the framing matches. Entire scenes are shot unedited and from long range, as if captured by cameras filming surreptitiously. And the story they're telling here branches out unpredictably and ambitiously to include big issues like religious and ethnic bigotry and very personal issues like infertility. And, oh, yeah, there's the title, "The Curse" - turns out that's literal and part of the mix, too. During a shot for the proposed real estate TV series he's hoping to star in, Ash sees two young girls selling cans of soda in a parking lot, and, wanting to appear generous and friendly, he hands them a bill, the only one he has, but only until his cameraman gets the shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CURSE")

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) So we were just shooting a little TV show over there, and we were just getting a shot. You're a little movie star. But that hundred-dollar bill was all I had. So how about you give it back to me and I'll go get change and I'll buy that whole six-pack from you for $20?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) She's not giving it back to you. You gave her the money. It's a done deal.

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) Oh, come on. That's not fair. I'm going to buy the whole six-pack.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's fair. We do no refunds.

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) I was going to buy the whole six-pack.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's a sign.

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) Is that your dad? Can you tell them I'm going to buy a whole six-pack? Can you tell them I'm going to buy a whole - the whole six-pack here? Here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Give it back to her.

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) It's OK. It's OK.

HIKMAH WARSAME: (As Nala) You can't do that or I'll curse you.

FIELDER: (As Asher Siegel) You'll what?

WARSAME: (As Nala) I curse you.

BIANCULLI: As weird as this might sound, this TV series called "The Curse" takes its curse seriously. The mood shifts, approaching "Rosemary's Baby" territory, and other scenes play out much more like a drama than a comedy. The unsettling feeling remains, but with every episode, "The Curse" gets a little more compelling and mysterious and dark, and so do its characters.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "The Curse" on Showtime. It's streaming on Paramount+. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guests will be actor Courtney B. Vance and therapist Dr. Robin Smith. Their new book, "The Invisible Ache," explores the trauma unique to Black men and boys, the recent increase in suicides and the urgent need to change the conversation about mental health. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "AIN'T YO STUFF SAFE HERE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "AIN'T YO STUFF SAFE HERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.