Somehow, Showtime’s bizarre, quirky gem On Becoming a God in Central Florida (from creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky) failed to generate the buzz it deserves during its inaugural 10-episode run. But for those who have become indoctrinated into the world of FAM, few shows have provided a more wonderfully strange journey. Set in Orlando in the early 90s, the series follows Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) whose life is turned on its head when her husband’s dangerous obsession with FAM (an aggressive pyramid scheme that includes the sale of household products) leaves her alone and figuring out how to provide for her young daughter. (You can read LaToya Ferguson’s spoiler-free review here, and then come back later if you haven’t finished the season!)
On Becoming a God is a working class story, and for much of the first season we see Krystal as an intelligent entrepreneur trapped in a minimum wage job. She speaks plainly and doesn’t cotton to anyone’s nonsense, but she’s never above using whatever tactics she has at her disposal (lying, manipulation, threats) to achieve her goals. Part of Krystal’s plight is noble; she has a baby to protect, and she is, at various points early in the story, on the brink of bankruptcy and homelessness. But Kystal’s ambitions are also tied up in her vengeance against Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), the head of FAM’s east coast sales, as well as her own desire to get ahead at any cost. All she wants is enough money to feel secure, which is exactly the hope that FAM preys upon. It sells a dream of prosperity to those without resources, a false hope that you can grab hold of the American Dream with your own two bootstrap-pullin’ hands and make your own fortune. That is the great promise of America, one that—as the show reveals over and over again—has maybe never been true.
Krystal may not be an outright hero, but she is someone well worth rooting for thanks to Dunst’s award-worthy portrayal. Krystal is a little rough around the edges and often gets in her own way, but even when she’s completely worn out she doesn’t ever stop scheming or thinking of ways to make her life better. That includes dragging her co-worker, neighbor, and friend Ernie (Mel Rodriguez) into the void of FAM, which he then develops his own obsession with.
Both Ernie and Krystal are smarter and better than the FAM system allows them to be, since it’s designed so that you can never be good enough to actually earn real money. It’s the tide that continues to batter their boats back out to sea, first with Krystal being forced to shut down her Splashercise operation, and later when Ernie smartly expands into the Latinx market but is ultimately left with nothing. Both Krystal and Ernie are also forever changed by horrific acts of violence, an outlet for which they find in the familiar patter of FAM. And while Ernie and Cody (the exceptional Theodore Pellerin) are both happy to find meaning in the embrace of FAM, Krystal does so by fighting it every step of the way. Her war with Obie allows her to flex her cleverness, and it gives her a springboard to the money she has been chasing all season.
On Becoming a God sets up more than a few false starts for Krystal in terms of what success looks like for her. Is it taking Obie down? Partnering with him? Creating her own business? Becoming manager of the water park? Finding another buyer for the park? Using Cody for stability? Blackmailing Obie through the press? Joining up with Obie’s wife? Nothing quite seems to come together until the very end, with the season finale (“Go Getters Gonna Go Get”) teeing up a few more possibilities before giving us another change (those possibilities being the tape that she makes of Judd’s confession, as well as Roger saying he wants to help Krystal before, you know, Chekov’s golden gun goes off and kills him). Ultimately Krystal is able to get what she wanted, just not in terms she had originally considered, by being made owner of the water park—now called, brilliantly, Krystal Waters. There she can launder FAM products and use the name to augment her own ambitions as Obie flounders (for now). Plus, since she came clean to Cody about her lack of real feelings for him, they’re now in a more honest place as companions, as part of a relationship that speaks to some of their personal needs.
In a less certain place, though, is Ernie, who has also had an incredible arc over the course of the season—all of which culminated in him appearing on the FAM telethon with a fake family. Ultimately, though, he seems to have lost his family, the friends he brought into FAM, and even his mind after witnessing a death, and the finale only gave us a hopeful peacock of wealth that his wife may or may not accept as a peace offering. But Ernie is just one example of the collateral damage in Krystal’s wake as she worked to find a secure place for herself. Again, Krystal is not exactly a hero; she pawns the diamond in Cody’s ring, she aids in a kidnapping (however well intentioned), she buries a body in the swamp, and she signs up a ton of unsuspecting new downlines to FAM knowing what a scam it is, to name a few.
But Dunst makes Krystal’s brazen resourcefulness a boon rather than a flaw, and seeing her behind the desk at Krystal Waters was a moment of triumph. (Even though her war with Obie is far from done.) “You are a demon,” Obie says to her. “No, I am a business man,” she replies. Is there a difference? (And yes, she said man and not woman.) The road to Krystal Waters might be a corruption of her original dream, but perhaps there is no more honest portrayal of the American Dream than what Krystal achieved. “I want to do what I do, Louise, I want to make them rich,” Obie says with a sinister smile to close out the episode, referencing his plans for Krystal’s “swamp-dwelling” relations. In a crazy way, he did that for her. Krystal is selling FAM. There were blood, sweat, tears, and a water park involved but, what could possibly be more Floridian than that?
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV