This article contains spoilers for The Curse episode 4.
A24 and Showtime series The Curse features an impressive roster of actors.
Leading the ensemble of this black comedy is Academy Award-winner Emma Stone, whose property developer Whitney Siegel is an “Eat. Pray. Love.” neon sign brought to life – a well-meaning upper class white woman barely repressing the exploitative impulses roiling underneath. Then there’s series co-creator Benny Safdie, who is fresh off a scene-stealing portrayal as hydrogen bomb creator and certified hater Edward Teller in Oppenheimer. His sleazy reality show producer Dougie Schecter is something to behold, swaggering around with ’90s Howard Stern locks, a fistful of garish rings, and a questionable blood-alcohol content.
The most beguiling member of The Curse cast, however, is co-creator, co-writer, and co-lead Nathan Fielder as Asher Siegel. Though a towering name in television comedy, the Canadian performer has not traditionally been known for his acting roles. His biggest projects, like Comedy Central’s Nathan For You and HBO’s The Rehearsal have been more meta and experimental. Both shows find Fielder playing a stylized version of himself (though also maybe not) as he pushes the bounds of both television and reality itself with various schemes involving real life folks.
Fielder’s work is usually compelling as hell but it has never been viewed as “acting” per se. In fact, most of Fielder’s acting roles have been limited to bit parts in things like The Disaster Artist and Tour de Pharmacy. Despite all his comedic experience, Fielder sticks out as a novice on The Curse, which is a fact that he seems profoundly aware of. When The New York Times review of The Curse referred to Fielder as “a more limited, stiff actor” he made a meal of it during his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live to promote the show.
While pointing out Fielder’s relative acting limitations when compared to legitimate movie star Emma Stone is fair game by The Times, it also undersells what he’s able to accomplish here. Because, stiff as he may be, Nathan Fielder is capable of producing breathtaking moments of comedic acting several times through The Curse‘s 10-episode run.
One moment in particular comes at the tail end of the just-released episode 4 “Under the Big Tree” and it needs to be seen. So we asked Showtime if we could show it to you. They said yes, thank God. Give it a look below and then let’s talk about it more.
Fielder’s performance as Asher is indeed “limited and stiff” because Asher himself is limited and stiff. Through four episodes, the show has successfully established Asher as perhaps the least remarkable man to ever live. Despite inexplicably bagging a certified baddie in the form of Whitney, Asher doesn’t seem to know how to interact with any other human beings properly.
That quality itself is not unusual for a Nathan Fielder character. The versions of “Nathan Fielder” depicted in Nathan For You and The Rehearsal are similarly awkward. Where those “Nathans” differ from Asher, however, is that they understand their social limitations while Asher instead tries to power through them with disastrous results. In the clip above, which is the last scene of “Under the Big Tree,” Asher is subjecting himself to a corporate comedy class that Whit suggested he take (re: forced him to take).
Whit was understandably rattled by a focus group’s response to Asher in a rough cut of their HGTV pilot for “Flipanthropy” (“He wasn’t funny at all,” one participant grouses). When their show is actually picked up by HGTV, Whit realizes that he’ll need some work to become TV ready.
So that’s how Asher finds himself in a room with comedy teacher Jeff Robinson (Doug Montoya) and a whole host of other people who need some guidance on how to be funny in the workplace. The first exercise involves everyone going around the circle and attempting to make one another laugh without using words. Everyone is modestly successful in at least getting some sympathy chuckles. Asher is not.
The most remarkable part of Fielder’s performance in this scene isn’t his doomed attempt at making a funny face (though that is pretty remarkable on its own), it’s what comes before it. As directors David and Nathan Zellner’s camera makes its way around the circle of chairs, it settles on Asher a few rounds before his “turn” come up so we can see the level of desperation build for him. He’s barely paying attention to his classmates attempts, just focusing on conjuring up the best possible face to make … and failing miserably.
Fielder’s facial acting here is so vivid that I actually initially misinterpreted the scene. I had not realized that it wasn’t Asher’s “turn” yet and thought the laughter being generated from the room was due to his pained visage and not the funny expressions from the few folks in line before him. It made perfect sense to me that people would laugh at the pitifully effortful microexpressions on Asher’s face even before he went full goofball because I, myself, was.
Back when Whit was trying to convince Asher to take this class she told him “I was just thinking maybe something like that would be interesting for you so you feel more confident on camera. Because you’re so confident and funny off camera.”
Acknowledging that he’s funny off camera appeared like a diplomatic way to get him to take the class without hurting his feelings. But in truth, Asher is funny in the way that no one actually wants to be. He has the air of a man who pretends not to care about anything when in reality he does nothing but care and is continually (hilariously) punished for doing so.
Limited and stiff? Maybe. But also tragic, funny, and fascinating.
New episodes of The Curse stream Fridays on Paramount+ via a Showtime subscription and air Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.