'On Becoming a God in Central Florida': TV Review

The comedy works better than the drama, but Dunst is a delight throughout.
8/25/2019

Kirsten Dunst stars in a Showtime dramedy about pyramid schemes, Florida and the things we're willing to do to support our families.

The American Dream is alive and well in Florida, at least on cable this summer. Actually, as represented on shows like TNT's Claws, Pop's Florida Girls and Showtime's new hourlong dramedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the American Dream is accessible only through an alligator-filled swamp, patrolled by organized crime figures and surrounded by theme park-addled tourists. This humidity-corroded version of the American Dream, obscured by swarms of mosquitos and Spanish moss, is filmed almost anywhere other than Florida — and, in a telling detail, is filtered through a female perspective, one accustomed to stumbling blocks and complications.

As a series, On Becoming a God in Central Florida is itself accustomed to stumbling blocks. Creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky have stuck with the show from AMC to YouTube and now on to Showtime, where this pitch-black portrait of multilevel marketing finally emerges as a tremendous star vehicle for Kirsten Dunst, with enough twists to maintain interest through some lags in the second half of its 10-episode first season.

Dunst plays Krystal Stubbs, menial employee at Rebel Rapids water park in Orlando-adjacent (played by various Louisiana settings), devoted mother to an infant named Destiny and wife to the mulleted Travis (Alexander Skarsgard, memorable in a brief role). Travis has gone all-in on Founders American Merchandise, a pyramid scheme driven by the methods and inspirations-on-tape of the mysterious Obie Garbeau (Ted Levine, channeling Mark Twain), platitudes so banal and cult-like that Travis doesn't realize how badly he's being rooked until it's too late.

Krystal must pick up the pieces, with the impatient urging of Travis' sniveling FAM boss Cody (Theodore Pellerin answering the question, "What if Timothée Chalamet, but for cable?") and the help of her neighbor and co-worker Ernie (Mel Rodriguez). Initially, Krystal's aspirations go no higher than a water aerobics class she can teach at $2-a-head, but she's about to see how far her gumption and willingness to cut ethical corners will take her and how far she's willing to go to support her family.

It's a familiar prestige TV anti-hero trope given some freshness — if you pretend that Showtime's Weeds never happened — through the gender inversion, like Breaking Bad for pyramid schemes when it's keeping things lively or Ozark for pyramid schemes when it becomes one-note and dour. The show does darkly comic well. Familiarity abounds when the almost obligatory premium cable violence and grittiness kick in. The focus on MLMs is still reasonably new. A detour into body disposal, at least not exclusively human-related, is not.

The show starts nimbly, revealing the layers of the FAM scam, juggling an impossible amount of jargon and reporting structure via the colorful people Obie Garbeau has lured in with his canned wisdom. My enjoyment peaked with the fifth episode, a 50-plus-minute outlier for a show that refreshingly embraces brevity, set around an upper-level FAM retreat at Obie's swampy compound and later at the wonderfully named Wham Bam Thank You FAM 37th Anniversary Jam, all awash in weird rituals and behaviors.

In general, the show could probably use around 20 percent more weirdness. That's the version that might more successfully capture the gothic scope of the title, which otherwise is likely to leave viewers scratching their heads. One pilot incarnation was going to be directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) — Charlie McDowell directed instead — and the mind boggles at the oddities he might have uncovered, especially in the moments at which FAM and its emphasis on restriction and control intersects with kink and Krystal tries to claim her life and her sexual independence simultaneously.

It's a gem of a performance from Dunst, boasting a different accent but reminiscent of her second-season work on Fargo. Overworked and under-supported, Krystal starts from a place of malaise, with the show reveling in finding the big and small moments that bring her joy, whether it's coaching poolside exercise or revisiting the unexpected talent that made her a pageant queen. Those sparks, that take Krystal from beaten-down to radiant, are where you can see Dunst's love for the character come through, a woman rediscovering who she was before marriage, before childbirth, before economic distress. There's no self-consciousness to the performance, whether it's Krystal's gamely mediocre fitness dancing, the 1992-friendly fashion choices or the character's braces, which serve more symbolic purpose — containment, prolonged adolescence, etc. — than anything else.

I don't know the details of how On Becoming a God in Central Florida came to journey from YouTube Premium to Showtime, but I know that Dunst should be a Golden Globe/Emmy player and although she'll benefit from Showtime's pedigree, YouTube Premium squandered a real shot at original programming legitimization.

Dunst isn't carrying the entire show on her own, though. Pellerin, in an assortment of ill-fitting suits, does impressive work pushing Cody to various pathetic brinks and then locating little likable beats. Rodriguez carries what may be the show's most substantive arc, as he plays Pied Piper bringing newly arrived Spanish-speaking residents to FAM and exposing a system of exploitation, and he teams with Beth Ditto, as Ernie's wife, Bets, to give the show its most grounded relationship. Levine's performance is a study in the juxtaposition of vocal nuance, in Obie's uplifting speeches, and outsized physicality, plus fine scenes with Sharon Lawrence as Obie's wife. Also memorable are Mary Steenburgen, guesting as Cody's generally disapproving mother, and Kevin J. O'Connor as Obie's barefoot head of security.

Every TV show is, if you think about it, a bit of a pyramid scheme. Creators ask viewers to invest with the promise of an eventual payoff that only occasionally comes through. On Becoming a God in Central Florida establishes its foundation well and, especially early on, the payoffs are steady and sometimes surprising. Even if the conclusion and tease for the second season are much less exciting than I'd have hoped, after 10 episodes Dunst, Levine and the details of this strange world kept me from ever feeling scammed.

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Théodore Pellerin
Creators: Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky
Showrunner: Esta Spalding
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)