Nearly 11 years after Nathan Fielder made himself known with Comedy Central’s Nathan for You—I’ll never forget watching the first episode with my friends Alex and Nick—he’s surpassed the Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim Complex. Nathan for You may have been an Abso Lutely Production, and it wasn’t a exactly a departure from their work, but it was clear from the start that Fielder wasn’t a rip-off artist or a wannabe like so many others. Without a partner or a character (other than “himself”), Fielder recalled Andy Kaufman and no one else—are there any other masters of disguise in plain sight in the pop culture lexicon? None as convincing as Fielder, who as far as I know, has never “broken character.”
He followed up Nathan for You with The Rehearsal last year for HBO, and now The Curse for Paramount+/Showtime. The latter was green-lit, developed, and announced first, right before the pandemic; in retrospect, The Rehearsal was an interstitial work, another awkward and ultimately heartwarming reality TV comedy of manners. You could recommend that show, like Nathan for You, to anyone with a healthy sense of humor. They might not have liked it, but those shows had broad appeal: despite Fielder’s deadpan, he’s a charismatic and soothing presence, never playing dumb and never condescending to his audience. His work puts us at eye level with him: this is a man we all know.
Plenty of people see themselves in “Asher Siegel,” Fielder’s first character with a name other than his own, and his familiarly awkward and uncomfortable experience of the world. Asher is close to the Fielders from before, but there are a couple of distinctions: a micro-penis, poor impulse control, and a well of anger, resentment, and yearning. Asher desperately wants to have a happy family with his wife Whitney (Emma Stone), and in the final episode, she’s about to give birth. This is nine months after the rest of the series, when they themselves are shooting a “reality show” about eco-friendly homes in Española, New Mexico.
Asher and Whitney are both out of place in working-class Española, and along with the crew, the town—the city and its people—they’re suspect from beginning to end, and they’re anxious. What I don’t understand is why so many people call this show “anxiety-inducing” or particularly hard to watch. Asher and Whitney’s show is a predictably exploitative and naive scam that traps people into homes without air conditioning. In the first nine episodes, Whitney’s super-rich parents, and her past as an heiress, are explored marginally, while her dominant relationship with Asher, her cuckold, is more developed. But their obsession with finding fame through eco-conversion in a working-class town that doesn’t want it—alongside unscrupulous and hilarious director Dougie (Benny Safdie)—is never any more "uncomfortable" or "hard to watch" than Looney Tunes.
But in the last episode, the show premieres and one day Asher wakes up on the ceiling. He spends the rest of the show’s 40 minutes trying not to fall into the sky. As I was watching it, I suddenly cracked up, and then doubled over, very rare at home. It’s a sequence like the fight in They Live, or the middle of the Safdies’ own Uncut Gems, when you start thinking you’re having a panic attack. Are people chasing that feeling? Are they unfamiliar with the films of Christopher Guest? Not Larry David or Curb Your Enthusiasm, surely—so what’s so uncomfortable about The Curse? Watching rich Americans exploit the poor? Seen it. Second-hand embarrassment? Seen it. Skyfall? That was new.
—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith