Alibi V.28 No.34 • Aug 22-28, 2019 

Idiot Box

Cash From Chaos

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” on Showtime

Kirsten Dunst has starred in her fair share of hit movies (Jumanji, Little Women, Bring It On, Spider-Man) but rarely has she been given the opportunity to do something deeper and darker (Wag the Dog, The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette). Which is kind of a shame, since Dunst is far more interesting when she gets to do something more than smile. Fortunately, Dunst’s first trip back to television (since a short, six-episode run on “ER” in 1996) allows her to tap into another level of her personality: the angry, vengeful, vaguely homicidal level.

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is a mildly quirky, blackly comic series set in “Orlando-adjacent” Florida, circa 1992. Dunst plays Krystal Stubbs, a lower middle-class wife and new mother who works at a crummy water park just to make ends meet. Her husband, meanwhile, has gotten himself entangled in a self-help pyramid scheme called FAM. A self-described “millionaire in waiting,” Travis Stubbs (the always-welcome Alexander Skarsgard), listens obsessively to the cassette tapes of Reagan/Jesus/John Wayne-loving marketing guru Obie Garbeau (Ted Levine from The Silence of the Lambs). While Travis is convinced that following “The Garbeau Method,” recruiting more people underneath him and selling a bunch of cheap home products will land him his own helicopter, Krystal is somewhat less convinced. Knowing that there are bills to pay and a baby to feed, she labors away at the water park, cleaning up the puke of various over-nachoed teenagers.

But when Travis’ increasing dedication to FAM results in an unexpected tragedy, Krystal is left holding the bag—monetarily speaking. Unable to wriggle out from under onerous FAM contracts, Krystal is faced with a mountain of debt. She responds by getting savage. This mom doesn’t want things to go back to the way they were now. She wants revenge. And she aims to get it by climbing as high as she possibly can in Obie Garbeau’s cult-like, multibillion-dollar empire and wreaking holy havoc.

“On Becoming a God …” is billed as a black comedy. And it’s certainly got its moments of off-kilter humor. But it’s not built around punchlines and jokes. Not by a long shot. Calling it a dramedy isn’t quite right. “Tragicomedy” might do in a pinch. Set in the go-go, early-’90s American landscape, it’s got a lot to say about people’s hopes and dreams—which in the wake of Ronald Reagan, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Wall Street and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker involved a lot of expensive cars and giant mansions. But Dunst grounds the narrative nicely. Her character clearly came from humble beginnings and with a husband, a child and a suburban roof over her head, she feels she’s ended up with “more than I ever expected.” But when it all gets taken away, she responds in an almost “Walter White” fashion. Instead of a king of meth production, however, she becomes the queen of multilevel marketing.

The show smartly acknowledges the trap of schemes like FAM (Amway being a major inspiration). Basically everybody here is just trying to stay afloat in this world of moving goalposts and changing rules. A fine ensemble cast (including Théodore Pellerin as Travis’s desperate dudebro and Mel Rodriguez as Krystal’s naive boss) rounds out the show’s various themes of economic desperation. Despite the intervening decades between 1992 and now, this show’s point about the rich exploiting the poor has lost none of its trenchancy. Occasionally uncomfortably close-to-home, but consistently, energetically nerve-jangling, “On Becoming a God …” is right on the money.

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” premieres Sunday Aug. 25 at 8pm on Showtime.