Showtime's new dark comedy (or light drama, you know how TV can't be put in a box anymore) On Becoming a God in Central Florida lives in the world of multi-level marketing, where predators sell the idea of success via pyramid schemes to those looking for a better life. Be your own boss, they say. Quit your J-O-B and start realizing your true potential, they preach. You deserve better than what you're getting right now, and we'll make it happen together, they promise.
MLMs are all about a good first pitch, and like those that have sucked in millions of wannabe entrepreneurs, On Becoming a God in Central Florida has a tantalizing one. Set in 1992 near Orlando, the series stars Kirsten Dunst as Krystal Stubbs, a mother of a young child and husband to Travis (an almost unrecognizable and Central Florida-ized Alexander Skarsgard), and because why not, an employee at a depressing water park. When we meet them, Travis is about to fully commit to the region's be-your-own-boss trap, an MLM with the sterile name Founders American Merchandising, but lovingly sold by its friendlier acronym, FAM.
Looking from the outside, FAM is portrayed like a cult of rabid, mindless followers chasing the almighty dollar and filling their hollow souls with self-worth. The American Dream, baby! Behind it all is Obie Garbeau (Ted Levine), a Colonel Sanders-looking con man who evangelizes the Garbeau System, one of those wordy-but-empty "paths to success" that's part self-help to build the confidence of his minions and a much smaller part actual business instruction. His system comes on tapes that members of FAM are required to buy, and that's where his money rolls in while everyone else toils in selling FAM-branded mayonnaise and toilet paper. A cryptic structure of hierarchy keeps his suckers striving for progress, and the whole thing plays out like a money-grubbing preacher siphoning pennies from people who can't afford shoes by promising them salvation.
Krystal and Travis are just barely getting by, and when tragedy strikes, Krystal is forced to work within FAM to support herself... but not by becoming a top salesperson, by working the system for her own gain. Krystal — blonde, mouth full of braces, and a woman in a man's world — is overlooked by almost everyone in the testosterone-loaded FAM, putting her in good position to scam the very institution that itself was built on scams. She finds an unlikely partner in Cody Bonar (an outstanding Théodore Pellerin) — pronounced buh-NAR but everyone says "boner" and that is indisputably funny each time — who is Travis' incredibly enthusiastic upline (the person above Travis in the pyramid scheme), and the two of them work their way up FAM's ladder, Cody finding the arm candy he needs to climb rungs in the family-oriented system and Krystal finding the connected dupe she needs to tear FAM down from within.
That makes On Becoming a God in Central Florida an incredibly fun watch in the early going as anything remotely coming close to toppling capitalism (and by comparison, exploitive religion) is a surefire hit with the kids these days. As the FAM rubes attempt to draw in others, who are often even more desperate for cash and financial freedom, On Becoming a God taps into our own desperation to stay afloat during these lean years, concentrating our hatred on those at the top making bucks of our backs.
Now, I call these members of FAM rubes, but On Becoming a God in Central Florida doesn't portray them as such, which is key to making this work. The people caught up in FAM are regular people (well, regular for Florida, anyway) exercising their given right to chase the American Dream. It's Obie and the others atop FAM who are the clear criminals taking advantage of anyone and everyone, and Krystal is our Joan of Arc, leading us into battle against these predators.
But like MLMs, things get a little dicey once you're beyond that mouth-watering pitch. After the initial promise of the early episodes, On Becoming a God in Central Florida loses its way in the second half of its 10-episode season with a struggle to keep things interesting and fresh. That's a shame, because the early episodes are great; the problem is things get repetitive as On Becoming a God in Central Florida realizes it doesn't have as much story as it would like. Krystal uses a big FAM event to forward her agenda, takes advantage of Cody's adoration of her, and gets stymied by Obie, and things repeat.
Additionally, the stakes for Krystal seem to lighten as episodes go on. In danger of losing the house in the first two episodes (great stakes!), she makes some financial recovery and nearly seems comfortable by the midway point (not as great stakes!), making her crusade against FAM more out of revenge than necessity. Combining that with the repetition, the second half of the season drags. There's a good half-season of television here, it's just stretched out to a whole season.
The series also slips into moments of surrealism. At various points in the show, Krystal trips off bird flu (for real) and goes on a vision quest, Obie has an extended sequence in which fruit is shooting out of his gut, and Cody has a come-to-Jesus moment with a pelican. These can feel like time-fillers, or maybe I was too sober to appreciate the deeper meaning. Now, if you know my taste, I usually eat this sh-- up, but these don't feel necessary to the show. But they're visually interesting enough to not hurt, either.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida — which was abandoned by YouTube before Showtime picked it up in June — comes from newcomers Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, and there's a lot to like about their debut. Dunst and Levine are fantastic, Pellerin is even better, and the subject matter is fascinating. But with some extraneous characters and pacing issues, it feels like this is the pretty good show before Funke and Lutsky's first great show.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
On Becoming a God in Central Florida premieres Sunday, Aug. 25 at 10/9c on Showtime.
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