“It’s a mishegas,” Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone), a convert to Judaism, says to her husband, Asher Siegel (Nathan Fielder), as they do a good deed for a needy family. “Mitzvah,” Asher corrects her. “Mishegas means something else.” (It means, roughly, “craziness” in Yiddish.)
“The Curse,” which has its streaming premiere on Paramount+ with Showtime Friday and its on-air premiere on Showtime Sunday, is also something else — several things else. It’s a dark satire of performative philanthropy and exploitation. It’s a psychological horror drama about marriage. It’s a reflection on the power of TV to create illusions. It is also other wild things that I am bound by strongly worded spoiler embargoes not to reveal.
But Whitney’s malapropism cuts to the heart of it. Above all, “The Curse” is an unnerving, erratic, dizzyingly original exploration of the fine line between mitzvah and mishegas.
In the New Mexico town of Española, the Siegels are shooting “Fliplanthropy,” the pilot of a series they hope to sell to HGTV about converting decrepit buildings into energy-sipping, high-tech Passive Houses, “saving the world one kilowatt at a time.” As they pitch it, the upscale project will also — somehow — benefit the community they’re gentrifying.
A Judaic concept of the mitzvah holds that it is a higher form of charity to give anonymously. In the Siegels’ world, however, it is as important to seem good as it is to be good.
And the mitzvah business ain’t easy. Their producer, Dougie (Benny Safdie), Asher’s childhood frenemy, is an emotionally damaged manipulator determined to spike the production by seeding conflict between the hosts. Their houses are mirror-wrapped monstrosities that are fussy to maintain and murder birds. Their buyers insist on sullying these eco-temples with air-conditioners and gas ranges. The network focus groups pick up on a lack of chemistry between the extroverted Whitney and the awkward Asher.
The vibes go further off after a contentious TV interview in which the reporter asks about Whitney’s parents, notorious local slumlords. Dougie sees an opportunity to soften Asher’s image by filming him giving cash to Nala (Hikmah Warsame), a Somali girl selling sodas in a parking lot. But Asher botches the moment by handing her his only bill — a $100 — then snatching it back to make change. With quiet fury, she pronounces: “I curse you.”
Whether Asher is actually cursed is an open question. And if you are familiar with Fielder’s work, you know that the search for the answer will involve a long walk down a hall of mirrors.
In “Nathan for You,” he made a comedy-reality show that used deceptions and absurd setups to send up commercial culture. Last year’s “The Rehearsal” was a recursive docu-stunt that interrogated the morality of its own manipulations. With “The Curse,” which he created with Safdie (“Uncut Gems”), Fielder has graduated from cringe comedy to cringe drama.
There is a creeping sense of racial tension and condescension around the Siegels, who are disrupting a largely Latino and Native American community in the name of saving it. They recite land acknowledgments at their construction sites while filling their houses with Native art they got on bulk discount. Whitney cultivates a friendship with Cara (Nizhonniya Luxi Austin), an Indigenous artist whom she treats like an accessory. And when the couple takes an interest in helping Nala’s father (Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”), you sense that they expect some kind of karmic applause for it.
Whitney does seem to sincerely want to change the world — even if it’s a way of rebelling against her parents. Asher is deeply concerned with being a good person — even if out of an uxorious desire to be worthy of his wife. But they have the familiar contradictions of white people who want to atone for their privilege while gaining from it, of idealists who love humanity but can’t deal with people.
Stone is marvelous as Whitney, an influencer for whom life is a permanent livestream; she’s always on, always micro-calculating her affect. Stone’s laser-precise performance puts across both Whitney’s lack of self-awareness and her genuine charm.
Fielder is a more limited, stiff actor. (His credits include Dean Fleischer-Camp’s surreal 2016 web series “David,” which prefigures the horror-comedy of “The Curse.”) But he custom fits Asher to his deadpan manner, like Bob Dylan writing for his own gravelly voice. Asher is as diffident as Whitney is self-assured. (His insecurity seems rooted in his having a small penis, an attribute “The Curse” allows us to verify up close.) You get the feeling he felt cursed long before his encounter in the parking lot.
You might wonder, like the HGTV focus group, why Asher and Whitney were ever together in the first place. He’s painfully needy; she feels a disconnect with him that festers into resentment. But somehow their wrongness is just right. The end of the third episode, in which they try to re-create a playful moment for her Instagram feed, with disastrously uncomfortable results, is a stunning and revealing set piece.
The difference between delight and disaster, the scene suggests, is often a matter of framing. “The Curse,” mostly directed by Fielder, emphasizes this theme visually: Characters are shot through windows, reflected in mirrors, espied through chain-link fences, caught in the rectangle of an iPhone. Asher, whom Dougie is gradually making into the villain-fool of his own TV show, sits down for makeup on set, and we see him distorted by the metallic panels of the house into a somber ogre.
As the Siegels and Dougie get further into the heart of darkness, a sense of doom grows (accented by the blood-rushing-through-your-head score from Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, and John Medeski). So does the mystery of what exactly “The Curse” is.
The show owes something to the naturalistic horror of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Don’t Look Now.” Its nuanced focus on the blind spots of people who see themselves as agents of good recalls HBO’s “Enlightened.” Its Jewish themes of judgment and consequence echo the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”; its hints of harsh and absurd cosmic forces suggest the short stories of Kafka.
It also, like “Atlanta” and the work of Jordan Peele, makes the argument that comedy and horror are separated-at-birth twins. (Kafka himself cracked up laughing while reading his stories to friends.) “The Curse” works the same dynamic of social discomfort as Fielder’s earlier work, without the continual release of laughter. But it does what good comedy does: It knocks you off balance, steals your breath, turns you upside down.
“The Curse” is disorienting and unshakable. Is it good? Remarkably — and also questionably. The first few episodes are tours de force. The middle stretch is impressive but repetitive. The rest — I’ll be honest, I am still sorting it out. The 10-episode season becomes more inscrutable as it goes on; the loose ends accumulate; Whitney is made more cruel, and Asher more pitiable.
But for days after I finished, I could not stop thinking about it, turning over its layers of meaning and poking at the lingering unease. When it’s over, I expect viewers will spend a lot of time arguing about what they’ve just seen. Like its mirrored houses, “The Curse” is an ambitious construction, but it’s not an easy place to get comfortable.