Credit: Paramount/Showtime

The Curse, A Review

By Ken Levenson

I first watched The Curse in January, and I’m still trying to figure it out. Passive House is a central element of the show, if a bird-killing object of desire. The show also stars Nathan Fielder as Asher and the now two-time Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone as Whitney. They are newlyweds setting out, with show co-creator Benny Safdie as Dougie, to launch a successful influencer/development career with a new kind of values-driven reality home-building show called Fliplanthropy set in Española, New Mexico. Española is 30 minutes north of Santa Fe, and The Curse was shot there. It has gotten rave reviews from the likes of Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan who said, “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television before.” But I think a Guardian critic, Rebecca Nicholson, sums up many’s fate succinctly, saying, “I must be a TV masochist because I love it.”

Why masochism? The newlyweds are maniacally insecure, loathsome, self-obsessed, pampered, and lifestyle-eco-consumer-social-art-entrepreneur-ICKY. Their arrogance/insecurity is imposed on others (and us) while trapping them in rabbit holes of good intentions and unintended consequences. Dougie is the devil – aware and goading. Cuts extend often in seemingly real time, agonizingly slow for them and us alike. Fielder and Safdie have mentioned Allen Funt’s Candid Camera and Peter Falk’s Columbo (both personal favorites!) as inspirations for the cinematic tension, and we might throw Psycho into the mix as well.

The Curse? Ostensibly, the plot line kicks off when a girl puts a curse on Asher after he reneges on paying her after getting the video shoot he wanted with her. But really, Whitney and Asher are cursed by their own obsessions.

The show plums emotional tension from the camera angles, the script, and the soundtrack. It utilizes non-professional actors, found objects, and unplanned situations in Española to heighten the effect. The drawn-out shifting facial expressions betray a confusion of second-guessing, like a macabre internalized update to The Princes Brides’ Battle of Wits between Vizinni and Westley. Still, instead of laughing, you’re left cringing again and again.

Emma Stone is a master. She’s unexpected, painful, and cringy. You’re left wondering how in the world they got her to take the part. But do the part she does; she owns this flawed character magnificently, horrifically, maddeningly. It’s gross. It’s riveting. Like a dark twin to The Importance of Being Earnest, it brutally dissects social conventions, cutting too close to reality for comfort.

Despite Whitney and Asher’s awfulness, the show somehow makes one feel some empathy for them – extending the tension. Can you tell it’s captivating?

And Passive House? I find it helpful to remind myself that this show is about the human condition and not Passive House. Clad in mirrors (à la Doug Aitken), Passive House is a misunderstood alien, and the show’s producers treat it as such, ultimately unexplained and unexplored, because, after all, they have a story to tell. This isn’t surprising or (very) upsetting. I wouldn’t expect it to be a Passive House explainer either, but as they tend to misrepresent Passive House to get the desired effect, it’s more gags with the building. The “infractions” run the gamut. The insistence on not using AC, and insistence on using induction cooktops – all in the name of protecting the building certification. The insistence on not opening doors and windows and the absurd effects that opening them have on indoor thermal comfort, and on and on. One of many unplumbed but horrifyingly funny moments was when they opted to cleave off the baby’s room from the Passive House environment to give their baby healthier indoor air quality, betraying the characters’ ignorance and (empty)convictions…again.

A few fun surprises include when a prospective buyer blurts out, “After I saw this one, I started searching for passive homes, and there’s none in the area. I mean, I saw some eco-homes, but you ask them about thermal bridging, and they haven’t even considered any of that!” Perhaps the piece de resistance was when Whitney explained Passive House insulation levels. Who could not love this shot?

Credit: Paramount/Showtime

At the end of Episode 1, Whitney says, in a voice-over, “I can’t think of a better place to start our Passive House revolution.” Forgive me, but all I can hear is Emma Stone talking about a Passive House revolution. Is it me?

Finally, in the end (spoiler alert) there is satisfaction when the Passive House brings the curse full circle, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and apparently triggers a human sacrifice, leaving our protagonists destroyed by their hubris. Whew.

It’s crazy stuff, and had me think to rephrase our tagline, “Seize the Power of Passive House,” by adding, “Before it Seizes You!”

So, let’s be clear, while negative gravity makes for insanely amazing TV, it doesn’t explain Passive House. Go watch the show, but actually learn about Passive House here, here and here – and dare I suggest it – Get Certified.

– Ken Levenson, Executive Director