"The Curse," HGTV and the curb appeal of gentrification

The couple on "The Curse" claim there are no losers, reminding us that on community rehab shows there always are

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 19, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Nathan Fielder as Asher and Emma Stone as Whitney in "The Curse" (Beth Garrabrant/A24/Paramount+/SHOWTIME)
Nathan Fielder as Asher and Emma Stone as Whitney in "The Curse" (Beth Garrabrant/A24/Paramount+/SHOWTIME)

Throughout “The Curse” Asher (Nathan Fielder) and Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone) grow more desperate to be thought of as good people. Wherever Whitney walks in the couple’s adopted New Mexico community of Española, she smiles and waves at strangers, pets their dogs and asks about their spouses. She preaches the feel-good gospel of investing locally and bringing jobs to this predominately Hispanic and Native American working-class community.

Like the twee strip mall showrooms she and Asher run, they do not fit in. No matter, since in their view, their mission is to inspire (read: force) their neighbors to rise to their standards.

The couple would vehemently object to that description, insisting that bringing sustainable living to Española will be a boon to all. Moneyed urbanites searching for affordable housing will flock to the town, Asher hopes, bringing their spending power, raising property values and creating new jobs.

What happens when the cost of living also goes up? In the short run, and mainly while their producer Dougie (Benny Safdie) is filming these good works, Whitney and Asher negotiate on behalf of residents whose rents are going up and forge connections with government officials. But they assure those who ask that the profits for the homes they sell will be used to subsidize the locals' rising rents.

“There are no losers,” they assure all doubters, be they longtime residents or a profoundly skeptical TV reporter from a local station.

The newlyweds’ obsessive quest blinds them to their damaging sense of superiority; even as they believe they’re doing the right thing they can’t help screwing over others. A coffee shop featuring pour-over brews showcases the couple’s ethos, along with an overpriced denim boutique situated next door. This is part and parcel of Whitney and Asher’s commitment to sustainable living which they hope to turn into an HGTV series called “Flipanthropy.” In Española there are plenty of low-priced abandoned or tear-down homes in neighborhoods that, to outsiders, have seen better days.

"Flipanthropy" is essentially “Fixer Upper” with a comically massive injection of white guilt paired with saviorism.

Asher buys them, and Whitney transforms them into eco-friendly “passive homes” covered in mirrors as if to meld Frank Lloyd Wright’s “organic architecture” philosophy with a disco ball or a carnival funhouse. Inside they are an Instagram influencer’s fantasy of Southwest chic with pueblo blankets hanging on whitewashed walls and earth tone accents.

The show’s title comes from Ash’s fateful interaction with a little girl selling soda in a parking lot, urged into existence by Dougie, who tells him he needs B-roll of Asher doing good deeds.

When it goes sideways, the kid inhales deeply, trains a hard glare on Asher, and says, “I curse you.” Those three words end up holding a power over him he can’t shake.

Fielder’s forte is cringe comedy honed to a needle’s precision in the cult favorites “Nathan For You” and his recent HBO project “The Rehearsal.” Unlike those improvised sensations “The Curse” is scripted, making its satire more laser-focused on hitting interlopers like Asher and Whitney – please, call them Ash and Whit! – squarely in their conscience.

But it also burst the feel-good comfort we take in rehab shows that play up the nobility of restoring neglected properties in "up and coming" neighborhoods. Rarely do we hear about the people who lived in those places before or live around them now, and rarely do we think about what life will be like for them once the hosts pack up and the cameras are gone.

Fielder and Safdie co-wrote the series to be a treatise on gentrification, actual and metaphorical. By placing it within the world of home improvement TV they and co-executive producer Carrie Kemper, who co-wrote two episodes, remove the city limits from that concept and present it for what it is: a wrongdoing normalized by TV, TikTok and Instagram.

Fixer Upper: HotelChip and Joanna Gaines in "Fixer Upper: Hotel" (Magnolia Network)"Flipanthropy" is essentially “Fixer Upper” with a comically massive injection of white guilt paired with saviorism. Asher and Whitney are less charismatic versions of Chip and Joanna Gaines, more eager to be successful than environmentally friendly. Through Ash and Whit’s misadventures, “The Curse” shows us what that much-loved home improvement program and others like it don’t, mainly the financial and social costs incurred on the communities around their fantastically upgraded properties.  

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Whitney tries to rope in the local creative community, by courting a supposed friend who is both a visual and performing artist, and who barely veils her disdain for Whitney but will happily accept her fawning compliments. (One reliable aspect of gentrification is the artist's role as recon agent and shock troops.) Asher simply doesn’t want to fail and will exploit anyone to ensure he doesn’t, including former friends and co-workers.

As they attempt to get “Flipanthropy” up and running Española’s residents keep reminding them of the less pleasant realities of attracting newcomers to a place based on images projected on TV or online. Surely the Gaineses faced this as they transformed Waco, Texas, from a place that was notorious for the wrong reasons into a tourist destination synonymous with homey Americana. Contemplating the area's rising property taxes or longtime residents being priced out and perhaps displaced is not a topic audiences want to engage with. 

Nevertheless in 2019, not long after the Gaineses announced the launch of Magnolia Network, a reporter from Buzzfeed paid an extended visit to Waco to experience “the Fixer Upper effect” and speak to the town’s natives about what it’s meant for them.

Contemplating rising property taxes or longtime residents being priced out and displaced is ... not a topic audiences want to engage with. 

Depending on who the reporter asked, Chip and Joanna’s town-wide “restoration” has been a Godsend or a blight. The reporter found a place that is, in the shadow of the famed Magnolia silos, welcoming and aesthetically pleasing, and elsewhere has stoked displacement fears due to skyrocketing property taxes. Additionally, there’s the fear of the existing culture being overpainted in a push for development that favors consumers who are white and upper middle class to the detriment of their Black, brown, and Indigenous neighbors.

“They want to come in and fix me. Fix us,” one resident is quoted as saying. But you know what? We’re not broken. Do we want to better ourselves and our circumstances? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we need fixing.”

This describes the tragicomedy of Asher and Whitney – they are convinced they know better and can therefore force people to live better. In an upcoming episode, one of their new-to-town buyers immediately accuses their neighbors of porch piracy, and Whitney takes it upon herself to police the person, insisting they live the “flipanthropy” way. It doesn’t work because people are selfish and don't like being told what to do – especially people who feel like their presence is a favor to the communities they’re invading and might otherwise write off if not for the approval of the world's Whits.

The CurseNathan Fielder as Asher and Emma Stone as Whitney in "The Curse" (John Paul Lopez/A24/Paramount+/Showtime)Some shows make a serious effort to do right by the people living in the places they're rehabbing. HGTV’s “Bargain Block” has made stars out of home designers and renovators Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas, who purchase multiple tumbledown homes on the same block in Detroit, fix them up, and sell them for under $200,000.

Their goal is to bring people back to urban neighborhoods that emptied when the city's economy tanked and to provide quality opportunities for first-time homebuyers.  BridgeDetroit says Bynum and Thomas have rehabbed at least 40 homes as of June 2023. The hosts also work with a local credit union to assist buyers who its president and CEO told the outlet “haven’t been treated as well by the financial industry and others” to secure mortgage loans.

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The article cites data from local think tank  Detroit Future City indicating that white mortgage applicants were much more likely to have their home loans approved than Black applicants. Nearly 30% of the 1,717 African American home loan applicants were denied compared to less than 15% of the 913 white applicants, the report says.

Of course, as is the case with all of these shows, the host and producers of “Bargain Block,” along with their realtor and friend Shea Hicks-Whitfield, have no idea whether their homebuyers are from the communities they want to help or, like Asher and Whitney’s target customers, speculators buying into a neighborhood at a lower price to sell when the property values rise.

In a real way, they appear to be making efforts to do good in addition to meaning well with an eye on honoring the cultural fabric of the communities where they’re working, which is more than one can say about other shows promoting home rehab as nothing but a net benefit for both homeowner and neighbors. A blessing, you might say, instead of a curse.

And if not Fielder, Safdie and Stone bringing us the squeamish misadventures of their eager "Flipanthropist" couple in New Mexico, we might never think otherwise.

New episodes of “The Curse” premieres Fridays on Paramount+ with Showtime and at 10 p.m. Sundays on Showtime.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Chip And Joanna Gaines Commentary Gentrification Hgtv Magnolia Network The Curse Tv