“The Curse” and the Magical Thinking of the Speculative Economy

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“The Curse” is set in the New Mexico desert, where newly married couple Asher (Nathan Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone) Siegel have declared themselves pioneers in a new frontier: ethical gentrification. Whitney designs high-end, eco-friendly homes whose mirrored siding and interior décor by local Native artists literally, and figuratively, reflect the surrounding community—the working-class, predominantly Latino town of Española. As they explain to a local reporter, their plan is to set aside a portion of home sales toward offsetting the rent of any tenants displaced by rising property values. Asher jokes in a playful TV voice that “no one is more concerned than us about the G-word.”

He’s not exactly lying. Gentrification is precisely what these two are counting on. Whitney and Asher are shooting material for a potential HGTV series, tentatively titled “Flip-lanthropy.” Though their brand is forward-thinking, their actual business plan has old roots in the American West. They’re land speculators. The pair have been buying up plots across Española in anticipation of the land value rising once their show gets picked up to series.

​​Asher and Whitney are banking on a whole lot to happen in the future—for their TV show to be green-lighted, on Española to be the next big thing, on a local Native artist whose work they want to feature on the show becoming “one of the biggest names in contemporary art.” Some of their propensity for speculation is generational. In the 2022 book, “Speculative Communities,” the sociologist Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou argues that, although “capitalist societies have always relied on their capacity to anticipate, imagine, and speculate on the future in order to navigate its uncertainty and volatility,” the first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen these impulses go into hyperdrive thanks to an unholy merger of technology and rampant economic and political insecurity. Whitney and Asher are millennials, members of a generation that came of age monitoring the New York Times’ election needle on their phones and watching billionaires determine the future value of small businesses on “Shark Tank.” Like their peers, they have imbibed the lesson that a finger to the wind is a greater asset than a nose to the grindstone. Of Española, Asher tells his father-in-law, “It’s going to be a neighborhood no one saw coming.”

The people who have long called Española home, including its Native community, would probably disagree, but the show is precisely about whose predictions about the future go unchallenged and whose fates are decided as consequence. As a satire, the sharpest knife that “The Curse” has in its reclaimed-wood cupboards is its dissection of how much of our lives are subject to reckless and often unfounded prognosticating about the potential of markets and individuals. The speculative practices—the financial and cultural forecasting—on which Asher and Whitney have staked their futures would be considered occult forms of divination were white people not the ones engaging in them.

The show offers up a Black witch to make that point. As Asher and Whitney plot out their fortunes, misfortunes begin to befall the couple. The culprit, Asher suspects, is an underprivileged girl named Nala (played by Somali American actress and adorable scene-stealer Hikmah Warsame), who may or may not have mystical abilities. By sprinkling the supernatural into a show ostensibly about housing and the influencer economy, “The Curse” ’s co-creators, the actor and director Benny Safdie and the comedian Nathan Fielder, invite us to think about how rooted the uncanny has become in our economic processes, wherein the haves and have-nots are better thought of as the blessed and the cursed.

The curse in “The Curse” comes after a chance encounter, if you believe in those. One day, a resident of Española, whose future Whitney and Asher have been shuffling like a deck of tarot cards, turns the magic back on them. A producer wants to shoot some B-roll of Asher “giving back to the community. You know, charitable stuff.” All Asher has is a hundred-dollar bill, but he hands it off to Nala, who is selling soda cans on the street. Once the cameras stop rolling, Asher asks for his money back. When she protests, he snatches it from her hands. After this rapid fluctuation in her own fortunes, Nala’s sweet face suddenly contorts into an almost paranormal seriousness. “I curse you,” she says softly, but with conviction.

It later emerges that Nala learned her sorcery from no spell book; she’s just acting out a TikTok trend. But Whitney and Asher are possessed anyway, perhaps sensing deep down that they deserve some sort of karmic debit (in fact, Asher desperately searches for an A.T.M. to withdraw twenty dollars for Nala, in hopes it’ll lift the curse). “Now we have this hanging over us,” Whitney fumes at him. As a plot device, the curse makes plain that Asher and Whitney believe, at least a little bit, in magic. And why shouldn’t they? Their entire business model is based on magical thinking—a fact that is underscored when, struggling to find customers with deep pockets who won’t call the cops on their neighbors or fight the local Pueblo on land-rights issues, they have to hire actors to pose as home buyers for their show.

A few episodes in, we learn that Nala’s hex was harmless, but not ineffective. In another coincidence, one of the vacant homes Asher and Whitney buy up turns out to be occupied by Nala and her family, who are squatting there. The couple agree to let them live there rent-free, out of guilt or, more likely, out of fear. While Asher is fixing something at her house, Nala reveals what the curse was. “I took the chicken out of his dinner,” she confesses sweetly, seeming to think it was all just a silly prank. Meanwhile Asher’s face becomes as frozen as the chicken-penne meal that was all penne the other night.

As we move back and forth between Nala and the “Flip-lanthropy” shoot, the little girl’s magic and TV magic swirl together in a cauldron of predictions, and Asher and Whitney’s marriage begins to buckle under the heat. In staking everything on “Flip-lanthropy” getting picked up by HGTV, they have all but given their lives over to de-facto fortune-tellers, like Asher’s old friend Dougie (Safdie), a freelance reality-TV producer whose previous credits include a “Love Is Blind”-type show, called “Love to the Third Degree,” about a burn victim whose condition is revealed only at the very end. Dougie assures them that he knows how to work the system, but when HGTV puts together a focus group for the pilot (a form of corporate soothsaying), Whitney and Asher realize they are subject to the vicissitudes of people from “some mall,” as Dougie informs them. The feedback is discouraging, especially as it relates to Asher: “He was supposed to be funny?” one subject asks. “Our entire livelihood right now is based on the fact you said they’re probably going to pick up the series,” Asher yells at Dougie, as if Mr. “Love to the Third Degree” were Nostradamus.

Much has been made of Safdie and Fielder as auteurs of cringe, joining forces in “The Curse” to stress-test our nerves. But they also share an interest in prophecies—financial, spiritual, and sometimes an inebriating brew of the two. The Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems” centers on Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a Jewish jeweller in New York City’s Diamond District with an addiction to sports betting. After lending the N.B.A. player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) a special black opal mined by Ethiopian Jews, Ratner bets in a six-way parlay that Garnett will score enough so he can cover his old gambling debts, a leap of faith in every sense.

Fielder’s breakout hit, “Nathan for You,” on Comedy Central, skewed more secular, unless you consider blind faith in capitalism an American religion. The series parodied business-makeover series like “Undercover Boss” and “Kitchen Nightmares.” Boasting that he “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools,” Fielder, as host, offers consulting services to real-life small-business owners, but—much like actual consultants—his solutions just introduce new problems. In one episode, Fielder advises the owner of an antique shop to institute a “you break it, you buy it” policy and to stay open twenty-four hours a day, then gets a drunk at a nearby bar to go in while wearing a sumo-wrestler costume.

“Nathan for You” was partly influenced by the 2008 financial crisis; Fielder became “obsessed with it,” as he told The A.V. Club, and curious as to why people caught up in the subprime-mortgage scheme didn’t speak up when they sensed that something was off. “The Curse” features a subplot that feels like a callback to the earlier show. In one episode, we learn that Asher used to work at the local Indian casino as a kind of in-house “Nathan for You,” devising methods to potentially increase profits. One of his pitches—a recreational zone for the children of gamblers—is the kind of off-putting idea that would have played farcically on Comedy Central. Here it scans as a legitimate-sounding pitch. The only difference is that Fielder, as Asher, fires off a bunch of business jargon and consultant-speak, like “the stickiness is off the charts,” and wears an ill-fitting blazer. “The Curse” is also about a housing crisis, and the dangers of treating predictions made by men in suits as science. The real-estate speculation that Asher and Whitney are engaging in is as reckless as gambling—they are gambling with their own futures and the futures of the town—but no one would accuse them of having a problem, or of letting their imagination write checks that reality can’t cash.

“The Curse” is interested in whose ideas about the future we give credence to, which, in an increasingly speculative society, is a form of immense social capital. Contrast Asher to Nala—a poor girl, Black, the daughter of an immigrant single dad. Anyone speculating about Nala’s future would have to concede it’s bleak. But part of that bleakness stems from our predictions-based culture itself, like algorithms that determine bad credit—itself a curse. Once our society has decided that the odds are not in your favor, it just stacks them up even higher. By making Asher and Whitney think it is her, not them, who decides which way the wind will blow, Nala has, however briefly, reasserted her control over the future. Well-meaning white progressives, they don’t want to believe a poor Black girl has that kind of power; one, because it would be racist for them to think so, and two—because the prospect terrifies them. In this light, “The Curse” could be seen as a revenge fantasy for our era, speculative fiction for people whose futures have been recklessly speculated against.

“The Curse” ’s out-of-this-world season finale has been much discussed, as even a fake TV consultant on Comedy Central could have predicted. The plan: Create an episode of television so soaringly unexpected that it sparks critics’ roundtables and frenzied theorizing across social media, therein enticing Americans to wade through several hours of a show about the relationship between settler colonialism and gentrification to make it to the end. To spoil the ending, Asher wakes up one morning on the ceiling, in a scene reminiscent of the haunted-bedroom moment in “Poltergeist” (another tale of cursed developers, contested land, and television). At first, Asher blames the passive home, wondering if an air-circulation issue is to blame, but once out of doors he just keeps falling up and up, until not even HGTV’s drone camera can locate him. Safdie and Fielder leave his surreal predicament unexplained. But, in an earlier episode, we see Nala attempt to curse a bully as she is climbing ropes in gym class by closing her eyes and chanting “fall.” The bully makes it up without losing her grip, but perhaps Nala’s curse eventually took hold against another kind of class enemy.

In the world of “The Curse,” this explanation for Asher’s fate feels as plausible as anything. The series knows that magic is all around us. Our economy is ruled by an invisible hand. As long as you have good credit, money can be pulled out of thin air. By virtue of their privilege, Whitney and Asher believed themselves to be magicians. This belief was not irrational: Their show, in the end, was greenlit—just as they foretold, while looking into the crystal ball of Whitney’s family’s bank account and their industry connections. As the history of financial speculation shows, if enough people believe in your version of the future, it rises, like all things full of hot air, to the level of reality. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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