About 15 minutes into the New York Film Festival premiere of The Curse, I felt the large audience of the Alice Tully Hall shift in their seats, en masse. One of the series’ stars — and co-creator and writer — Nathan Fielder, had just done something fairly disarming, and the vibe, collectively and palpably, changed.
Fielder is a popular comedic actor who, based on the proliferation of Warby Parker glasses and baseball caps surrounding me (I say, in jest), most of my audience was specifically here to see. A question that was probably on many of these fans’ minds (myself included, as a longtime fan) is the extent to which Fielder would be debuting as a Big Serious Actor in his first narrative show, or whether he’d be the partly real, partly affected version of Nathan Fielder we’d all come to know and love from the comedic reality shows that had made him famous — the Fielder persona who he himself seemed incapable of shedding. It’s precisely why the scene that noticeably rattled my audience did so in the first place: Fielder was suddenly a character that we didn’t quite recognize.
Nathan Fielder has refined playing a certain type of guy, one who also happens to be a little like who he actually is. Through Nathan for You, he became notorious for his signature on-screen personality style of rigid, throttling discomfort. With his awkward, monotone cadence and slightly uncanny way of interacting with others, he repeatedly put himself at odds with the non-actors in his show by simply allowing awkward moments to play out to excruciating effect. He brought that persona back for his more artistic reality venture, The Rehearsal, last year, which partly served to comment on his documentary style, his own image, and the murky ethics of both. But Fielder is now practically inseparable from this carefully nurtured brand of cringe, seen in very few minor acting roles outside of his own shows to prove whether he can stretch out from it, or even if he really wants to.
With his new Showtime series, The Curse, which he created, wrote for, and stars in, all alongside Benny Safdie, Fielder amplifies and satirizes his own infamous persona to sublime effect. The entire character of Asher Siegel is a subversion of the Fielder archetype while still playing very much into it. In The Curse, Fielder’s familiar awkwardness is weaponized into a version I’ve dubbed Dark Nathan. The other half of a married couple vying for HGTV fame while gentrifying a poor New Mexico town, Fielder plays Asher Siegel, husband to Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone).
As Asher, Fielder is awkward, meek, and subordinate to his wife, whose domination and subjugation over him is perhaps most intimately articulated in a terrific first-episode sex scene and the prior revelation that he has a tiny penis. Asher’s small-dick problems have manifested as an inferiority complex, while Whitney has settled into something of a god complex. But the two of them find shared ground on being morally vacuous grifters who deeply believe in their own grift, desperate to be liked and, most importantly, perceived as good with a capital G.
The scene that shook my NYFF audience was one early on in episode 1, in which Asher and Whitney are interviewed on-camera about their upcoming show, Fliplanthropy, by a reporter who has designs to needle Whitney about her corrupt family connections. When the couple’s attempts to divert the conversation fail, Asher, wanting to defend his wife, confronts the reporter viciously and personally. Fielder has spent the episode up to this point as the version of himself people recognize: vocal fry, stunted speech, hesitations and pregnant pauses. A guy who is “just kind of there,” “very off-putting,” and “not interesting,” as focus group members for Fliplanthropy astutely point out in episode 3, a scene that feels like something of a metatextual aside on Fielder’s known persona. But when Asher goes into attack mode, Fielder speaks smoothly, clearly, and with a self-assuredness that seems not only unrecognizable but also particularly insidious. Just prior to his attack, he was speaking about his wife’s “Passive Home” project by mechanically reading off a script from memory, laughing awkwardly and attempting to assimilate as a human in the way Fielder always seems to be. With our guard down and our expectations tempered, he sneaks in with a performance that makes it clear he’s not going to be quite the same guy this time.
It could easily come across as Fielder purely attempting to give himself intense actorly moments that prove his range — and maybe it is a little bit. But it’s also a big part of what defines Asher’s character: a consistent repression of emotions that explodes into bursts of forceful rage. Governed by the whims of his wife and the relationship with his own dick, he keeps his feelings to himself and has no healthy outlet to express them until they’re released in a torrent (in particular, he gives such a show of howling at the end of episode 9 that’s almost difficult to watch).
But Asher isn’t quite as bumbling and demure as the Fielder of Nathan for You, or even The Rehearsal, the latter of which has more artistic/satirical intent with Fielder still using that familiar haplessness to make a specific point. In The Curse, there is a level of calculation to his social inelegance, as if his subconscious intent is to disarm the people he interacts with just as Fielder has disarmed us, the viewers. Asher is not totally innocent, even if it’s clear he embodies a subservience to Whitney that manifests as protective rampages and pathetic, husbandly deference.
The weaponization of his awkwardness affords him a certain benefit of the doubt, like when a hilarious and premeditated snafu with a former co-worker allows him to steal the incriminating footage he needs for a bribe. Where Nathan for You saw Fielder’s strange personality utilized to create comedy through pushing the limits of agonizing social interactions, Asher pushes the boundaries of moral turpitude through how much he can get away with by being “just kind of there.” It doesn’t always feel intentional, but there is a perniciousness to it nonetheless, as well as a more apparent self-awareness particularly when it comes to his relationship to Whitney. Asher’s invisibility and submission in contrast to his wife creates a perverse sub-dom dynamic between the two of them. It also permits a level of overall accountability that he can willfully skirt — see a later scene in which Asher says he’s Whitney’s baby and does an impression of a baby for her and her gynecologist.
So, this is Dark Nathan: the Fielder character subverted as a sort of passive antagonist, outwardly unassuming, who has no real allegiances to anyone or anything other than what his current situation calls for. He is ultimately morally empty, which is what makes the character so malignant; Whitney, just as immoral, hides her own rotted conscience under the facade of forced likability and open-mindedness. But because Asher plays it more like he doesn’t know any better, he quietly comes off as the worst of the two. Depending on which way you want to look at Nathan for You and The Rehearsal, perhaps Dark Nathan has been the only Nathan this entire time — at the very least, The Curse proves he is eager to explore the very darkness that he created for himself.
The Curse episode 1 is now streaming on Showtime. New episodes premiere every Friday.