Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read MoreRead More
‘It’s Really Terrifyingly Good Satire’: A New Mexico Passive Home Builder on Showtime’s ‘The Curse’
The show isn’t exactly accurate. It isn’t entirely not accurate, either.
Edie Dillman lives in the first certified passive house in New Mexico. She and her architect husband, Jonah Stanford, are founders of a company called B.Public Prefab that builds and supplies prefabricated panels for highly energy efficient homes.
So when The Curse began to air on Showtime this past fall, following an aspiring HGTV host couple Asher and Whitney Siegel, played by Canadian awkwardness spelunker and conceptual comic Nathan Fielder alongside America’s sweetheart Emma Stone, who are trying to get their show, “Flipanthropy” — during which they build and sell passive homes in Española, a town half an hour north of Santa Fe — picked up by the network, Dillman and her husband found out about it.
“I was aware the second it launched,” Dillman told me. “There’s some very obvious correlations of a husband and wife team doing passive homes in northern New Mexico, for sure. So people started texting saying, ‘are you watching this? This is horribly painful.’ They were right.”
The show plumbs new depths of discomfort for Fielder, who before this was best known for his conceptual reality shows Nathan For You and The Rehearsal. The Curse opens with a producer dabbing the eyes of an elderly woman dying of cancer with water and even blowing menthol on them to get her to cry when the Siegels offer her son a job at the upscale coffee shop they’ve brought into town. And it only gets more uncomfortable from there: Asher takes a $100 bill away from a young girl after giving it to her on camera and spills a Powerade on a former coworker in order to steal from his computer; the poor little girl’s father, meanwhile, goes through what might be the most uncomfortable chiropractor appointment of all time (some viewers thought he had died), courtesy of Whitney.
Dillman seemed good-natured about the whole thing, even acknowledging that “any press is good press” and that the show was probably the most media attention the passive house community has ever gotten.
She was also refreshingly forthright about her own position — literally. “I think it's fair to tell you, as a journalist writing about this, I'm sitting in my own home that is a certified passive house and has the plaque that is almost identical to the plaque they have in the show, so it's a little too close to home,” she said. “Be kind in your reporting.”
The Curse is not a broadside against the passive house movement, which began in Germany in the 1980s and is based on using advanced building techniques — namely lots of insulation and thick windows that eliminate “thermal bridging,” where big differences in temperature create air flows that lead to inefficient air loss — to minimize the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a home. The target of the show is more the narcissism of do-gooders, how publicly virtuous behavior can mask and enable private avarice (the couple at the center of the show have an ultimate plan to goose the value of property they own in the town; Stone’s character is also the daughter of notorious Santa Fe slum lords) and how reality TV warps everything it touches.
But the vehicle The Curse chooses for its narcissistic, selfish, and emotionally damaged protagonists is nevertheless an oddly specific one. Not only have Whitney and Asher explicitly ripped off the design of their passive homes from artist Doug Aitken, whose designs famously feature mirrored exteriors, there’s even a German character clearly based on Passive House founder Wolfgang Feist who is brought in to explain the principles of passive homes.
The show does correctly identify some of the precise anxieties of the passive house movement. Any number of FAQs and guides to passive houses address the exact issues that come up in The Curse, such as whether you can open windows and doors or how homes are cooled in hot weather.
One buyer on the show tosses out an induction stove because he wants to be able to stir-fry, while in perhaps the series’s cringiest scene, another prospective buyer couple pulls out of a deal in part because of how long it takes for their prospective home to cool when a door is opened. The male half of the couple is already sweating when he enters the house and almost immediately asks for a glass of water. While trying to air himself out, he asks if there’s enough wattage for some air conditioning units.
“The answer to that is you don’t need one,” Whitney says, explaining that because the home “functions like a thermos,” it will never go below 65 degrees Fahrenheit or above 78.
“But 78 is sweltering,” the man says, before Whitney and Asher explain that because they had opened the door, it will take five to seven hours for the temperature to adjust.
The scene, Dillman said, “was a really funny exaggeration, and what's painful is we often use the thermos analogy.”
But, she told me in a follow-up email, “I just want to say that opening doors and windows does not create hours of discomfort. My teenagers were horrified by that scene, as they have lived in a passive house for 12 years and have never experienced anything like that.”
Dillman noted that passive homes can have air conditioning and gas ranges, although for maximum carbon reduction and air quality, electrified cooking is best. The way the show depicts perfectionism, meanwhile, is “rightly satirized,” she said. Still, the idea of “a perfect home that you can't open windows and doors,” was “really damaging and inaccurate — funny, but inaccurate.”
Dillman said few of the projects her company works on actually clear the passive house certification bar. “People are interested in the benefits, but not necessarily the gold star,” she told me.
Those benefits and how they’re achieved are explained at great length in The Curse — to the point that the third main character, an unctuous reality TV producer Dougie played by Benny Safdie, just about loses it. “This shit sucks, alright,” he says. “And it’s boring — really boring. I’m watching a guy talk about air for four minutes.”
But The Curse also milks drama from some of the thornier facets of the passive house movement, especially where it intersects with politics. When the couple drops out of buying the sweltering home, Asher calls another prospective buyer, who rolls up in a pickup truck sporting a pro-cop Blue Lives Matter decal. He loves the home — other “eco” homes he’s looked at “don’t even consider” thermal bridging, and he “love[s] that they’re basically off the grid.”
Instead of accepting that sustainable building practices can be appealing to people besides liberal do-gooders, Whitney — whose own goals of getting “Flipanthropy” picked up by HGTV, increasing the value of the real estate she and her husband own, and, most importantly, getting people to like and respect her are only glancingly associated with sustainability per se — goes near-catatonic with Asher.
“I actually loved that,” Dillman said. While she acknowledged that the stereotypical buyer of a passive home is a “white, liberal, do-gooder sustainability nut,” she also recognized that the energy independence a passive house offers might just as obviously appeal across the political spectrum. “It’s where the right and left somewhat come together and really agree,” Dillman told me.
While some of the downsides of passive home construction depicted on The Curse were “super inaccurate,” Dillman said, “I think seeing the humor in it and the morality is important.”
“I mean,” she added, “it’s really terrifyingly good satire.”
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