Surreality TV: The Curse finds the horror in home renovation shows | US television

Emma Stone, in another life, would have been a good HGTV host. The actor, currently starring on Showtime’s The Curse as an aspiring real estate entrepreneur-cum-lifestyle host, is of course easy to look at: huge, expressive eyes, bright smile and, in the show, hair and clothing that’s not quite derivative but not alternative, either. On The Curse, the hourlong brainchild of Benny Safdie and Nathan Fielder, Stone plays the dual role of Whitney Siegel on and off camera and, in host mode, Whitney is brittle but formidable. She understands the demands of the job: the host must project design knowledge, sunniness and perky determination (on top of being white, thin and conventionally attractive).

The Curse, like Whitney, is trying to do a lot, among them: cringe comedy, gentrification satire and surreal, genre-bending drama with commentary on everything from Indigenous rights to insurance policies. It being a Fielder production, a good portion of the viewing experience is excruciating, arguably unnecessarily so (the less said about a plotline involving male anatomical size, the better). The show’s predominantly voyeuristic aesthetic – characters are often filmed from behind bushes, windows, cars, fences and more – and extended scene length strands viewers in unbearably awkward moments for minutes at a time, and at odds with the slick, clipped grammar of prestige television . The Curse is anti-binge not just in its weekly release format but in that I actually can’t stomach more than one episode at a time. And yet it’s frequently fascinating, never more so than when it’s centering Whitney, a typically complex and slippery Stone creation, and taking aim at HGTV – at times, remarkably, by name.

In the show’s fifth episode, the midpoint for one of the best, most uncomfortable series this year, Whitney finally gets her shot at becoming an HGTV star. The network has greenlit Flipanthropy, her horribly titled series with her husband, Asher (Nathan Fielder), and the couple guide two prospective buyers through one of their “passive homes” – irradiant, expensive, apparently energy-efficient chrome structures in Española, a the majority of residents live outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Whitney easily dons chipper host mode when things go her way. But almost nothing does – the unrepentantly off-putting Asher keeps cracking prison jokes, the sweaty buyers want to throw away their passive certification for air conditioning, and an underhanded contract disclosure scares them away.

So Whitney chooses an easier route: fake it. “No jokes, no negativity,” she instructs a reshoot with fake buyers pulled off the street for $50 a pop – the kiss of death for honesty and yet a clear window into her self-aggrandizing vision of a real estate show that’s self-aware enough to outline the dark side of home renovation television yet too blinkered, defensive and misguided to actually look. Which is a rich premise, given the prolific influence of HGTV. Since its founding in 1994, the cable network, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, has become an easily recognizable content behemoth, consistently the most watched non-news channel in the nation, with an ethos and aesthetic – chipper, resourceful hosts, conservative color palettes , repurposed wood – that has transcended any particular show or region.

Like millions of Americans, I have devoted some of my precious time to the charms of home renovation television, despite neither owning a home nor acquiring the means to do so, and with an increasing awareness of issues outside the frame and the depressing sameness of its aesthetic. A good HGTV show gets into the mess of a DIY project, but not too much; it is knowingly edited into a coherent arc; it offers seemingly clever fixes to issues of logistics, price or taste; it is, as one HGTV executive put it in 2021, “aspirational and attainable at the same time”. Everyone depicted ends up satisfied at the end, reality not withstanding (the fact that there are no real purchase decisions depicted on House Hunters does not diminish its appeal).

The cheery, antiseptic quality of the homes and hosting has made HGTV extremely popular – at its prime in 2016, Fixer Upper, the center of the content universe by Chip and Joanna Gaines, reached 9 million viewers an episode; during lockdown in 2020, when Safdie and Fielder sold The Curse to Showtime, HGTV was watched by about 60 million people a month. And it has produced a small cottage industry of stories on the genre’s very real, longer-lasting shortcomings: how home renovation shows, and particularly the sub-genre of house flipping, accelerates gentrification, displaces poor residents, exacerbates neighborhood tensions, inflates prices or otherwise leaves a bunch of people out to dry in the name of pleasant entertainment.

In other words, it’s a genre so ripe for satire I’m surprised more shows haven’t taken it on, and a particularly satisfying target for Fielder’s skewering lens. Many have described The Curse as Fielder’s “most scripted project yet”, which is both literally true (his oeuvre includes the meta-reality shows Nathan For You and The Rehearsal, a labyrinthine social experiment with an HBO budget) and a nod to the implicit contract of reality television, including all of HGTV: to make good television, everything is, to some degree, restricted. Fielder’s work casts a discomfiting spotlight on the foibles of human behavior – why we make the choices we do, or resort to boilerplate niceties, how and why we perform as ourselves. Safdie, who plays the Siegels’ slimy producer Dougie, has along with his brother Joshua built a cinema canon of gritty self-destruction (Good Time, Uncut Gems). Together, they’ve created a show diametrically opposed, from theme to form to aesthetic, to the conventions of smooth-brain television, a barely watchable masterpiece in which some of the most horrifying scenes of the year derive from sunny self-delusion.

Such is Whitney’s primary state, to increasingly absurd, comic and desperate ends. Unable to sell prospective buyers on a performative resolution supporting the tribes to demonstrate being good “guests” in the community, a self-righteously furious Whitney goes into town for fake buyers while Asher secures a real one: a guy Whitney initially dismisses outright for bumper -sticker indicators of his politics – a “blue lives matter” flag, a “They Live We Sleep” sticker. The guy is, for one, a rare TV character in that his politics are, believably, a contradictory and illogical mix – he supports the World Wildlife Fund and the Indigenous land claims, because he claims a sliver of Native American ancestry; he hates government and likes the home’s off-grid potential; his car does indeed blow racist dog whistles.

He’s not fit for the vision of the show, in Whitney’s eyes, but he’s a willing buyer, so he gets the house and Whitney ends the episode looking shell-shocked, if not totally surprised. Much to her dismay, people off-camera, as in real life, are not easily malleable. Whitney cannot control the pace of change in a town she wants to shape her do-gooder image, nor people’s actions, and certainly not their feelings about it. But she’s determined to get a good show out of it.