On Becoming a God in Central Florida: A Surreal, Sincere and Sensational Southern Journey
Kirsten Dunst is simply outstanding.Photo Courtesy of Showtime TV Reviews On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Even if Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida didn’t have a lot going on upstairs, the fact that it stars Kirsten Dunst would have been more than enough to propel it to at least “soft recommend” status. Since she was a child actor, Dunst has managed to elevate even the better projects that she’s been a part of. And while awards may not tell the story, Dunst has consistently been one of the most underrated, unsung actresses around for decades—arguably the best of her generation, to be quite honest—never afraid to think outside the box with a particular choice in role. On Becoming a God in Central Florida is the next bold choice on Kirsten Dunst’s part in her career, one that only confirms that there is arguably a Kirsten Dunst role for every day of the week or emotional state. The series (of which all 10 Season One episodes were available for review) is set in an “Orlando adjacent” town in 1992 where Dunst’s Krystal Stubbs, a water park employee and former beauty pageant queen, sets out to take down FAM (Founders American Merchandise), the multi-billion dollar multi-level marketing scam that brainwashed her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) and ultimately ended up ruining her family and home life. Specifically, the Garbeau System of FAM, created by a Colonel Sanders-doppelganger in the form of Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine).
Yes, that is “the Second,” not “Junior.”
Created by newcomers Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky—in their first major project and especially first-ever television show—On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a series that caused me to, numerous times as I watched the first season, write in my notes, “What is this show?” But it was always in a good way, as I found myself in awe of what I was watching. With every hard left turn and 180 the series takes, the tone somehow manages to remain consistent. In fact, even through its trippier moments—like Krystal’s bird disease-driven “odyssey” in the fourth episode or in the introduction of Louise Garbeau’s (Sharon Lawrence) therapy method—the series continues to play them straight (or at least on the same level) as everything else in the show; no character ever addresses those bizarre moments. That’s a point that can make it easy to miss certain jokes and gags at first, but On Becoming a God in Central Florida excels because of how subtle it is—despite being a show whose very premise of Florida, the ‘90s, and pyramid schemes (and really, cults in general) suggests that “subtlety” is a concept that’s out the window altogether.
However, the reason behind this became even clearer upon remembering that, when the series (in the development stages) was first announced back in 2017, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of the Sacred Deer, The Favourite) was attached to executive produce the series and direct the pilot. At that point, the series was supposed to air on AMC, but then in June 2018, it made the jump to YouTube Premium (nee YouTube Red) for a series order. [With the move to YouTube, Lanthimos was out, and Charlie McDowell (The One I Love) was in as executive producer and pilot and finale director.] However, when YouTube shifted its entire original programming model, the series became homeless. That is, until June of this year, when it was announced that it would be airing on Showtime.
Typically, hopping from network to network like this—with creative shake-ups to boot—is a sign that the finished product ultimately won’t feel all that finished. Especially when you consider the distinctive style an auteur like Yorgos Lanthimos would have brought to the series during its original development incarnation over at ABC. But going back to that “What is this show?” question, On Becoming a God in Central Florida has managed to channel that general peculiarity expected with a Lanthimos project in a sense: It just happens to do so from a more Americanized and familiar perspective, which actually ends up being an even better choice for the series in the long run. Because it truly feels like one little tweak in the wrong direction could’ve turned this series into a disaster. Which is especially impressive, considering series co-creators Funke and Lutsky have no large established portfolio to prove they know what they’re doing. In fact, of the two, only Funke has other credits on IMDB, and they’re shorts.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida is comforting in its familiarity in tone and vibe but exciting in its story and approach. Throughout all 10 episodes, my mind went through various works to compare the series to, with the most obviously being Danny McBride’s HBO series, Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, and the upcoming The Righteous Gemstones. As someone from the South—from central Florida, even—I can confirm it’s really not as easy to capture the culture and general feeling of the region as certain shows would like to pretend it is. McBride’s series however, make it seem effortless, and On Becoming a God in Central Florida surprisingly follows the same path. Its portrayal of the South isn’t as heightened and outright comedic as as McBride’s, though it understands the beauty of highlighting the absurd (like Krystal riding an ATV with a cigarette in her mouth and her baby Destinee strapped to her chest) while simultaneously grounding it in the familiar (the very fact that Krystal has to constantly bring Destinee along, because it’s not easy or cheap to get a babysitter). On Becoming a God in Central Florida also captures the spirit of Southern hospitality, both the genuine concept and the two-faced one that’s even more pervasive in that world; it just also includes the two-faced world of multi-level marketing in the process.
The key to this type of depiction is something that makes the McBride series work as well as they do, and something On Becoming a God in Central Florida has from the beginning and maintains through the end: It doesn’t punch down. That is actually the most important aspect of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, because with the combination of Orlando, lower and working-class individuals, and a pyramid scheme at the center of all of this, it could be so easy for the series to mock its characters in the name of “humor.” To call them stupid for falling for the FAM scam in the first place, for not putting together how they’re not going to be millionaires, for not caring that they’re ruining their families’ lives. Which makes sense, not just to make sure the audience to care about these characters but because it can then work to better contextualize an actual phenomenon that was part of American culture in a pre-internet boom, pre-influencer world. On Becoming a God in Central Florida doesn’t just capture a place, it captures a time.
The series also captures how the scam of multi-level marketing or a pyramid scheme or whatever what you call it is more than just a scam: It’s a cult. The cult imagery is truly strong in this series, as it forgoes even trying to say “pyramid schemes are like a cult” and just bluntly says “pyramid schemes are cults.” In fact, the series even drops as much of the terminology for this system—“upline,” “downline,” “stinker thinker” (which is like a “suppressive person”), the FAM levels of Franklin/Jefferson/Washington, etc.—as often as it possibly can, which is often. Early on, it almost seems like the FAM rallies will be the most unnerving, bizarre moments in the series, shot like clips from the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that were left on the cutting room floor. (Funnily enough, despite this ‘90s music reference, an intense majority of the music for the show are from the ‘80s.) Well, that or all the FAM products in the Stubbs’ house, including one-ply FAM toilet paper.
Obie Garbeau II is very much a charismatic cult leader, and before the season pulls back the curtain and has him become more of a character, simply hearing his Garbeau System tape recordings every episode is honestly a chilling affair. Ted Levine has no problem playing a chilling character, but Obie Garbeau II is a different kind of villain for him, one that makes the perfect target for Dunst’s Krystal and the upsettingly perfect idol/father figure/religious figure for Cody Boner (Théodore Pellerin), the thorn in Krystal’s side. In such an established cast, the 22-year-old Pellerin—meaning he wasn’t even born by the year this show is set—is truly the surprise of the series, as the male lead who has to hold his own against Kirsten Dunst. It helps that his character Cody is very much unable to hold his own against Krystal, but to be able to play that without shrinking away and making the role nothing is an important task.
With an outstanding cast, Kirsten Dunst isn’t the only reason to watch the show, but she’s still the biggest reason. And again, it goes back to Dunst’s lack of fear when it comes to choosing out-of-the-box roles, roles that aren’t exactly the easiest to pin down. (There is a scene in this series that honestly gives this scene from Drop Dead Gorgeous a run for its money. And this comparison isn’t just because Dunst is the star of Drop Dead Gorgeous as well.) While Krystal Stubbs has decided to take down FAM, this is not the story of an altruistic woman who wants to protect others from going through what she and her family went through: This is the story of an angry woman who is fed up. Krystal’s life becomes so consumed by FAM that she’ll do anything to make things right (in terms of being able to pay mortgage and keep herself and Destinee afloat), even if that means continuing to work the system and recruiting other poor souls who she should probably be warning about FAM instead. Krystal isn’t a character who always makes good choices, but like the Garbeau System says, “Go-getters go get.” And Krystal is 100% a go-getter, for better or worse. Like Reba in her classic sitcom, Krystal is a single mom who works too hard, who loves her kid and never stops, with gentle hands and the heart of a fighter. She’s a survivor.
The further along you get down the rabbit hole of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the more bizarre a viewing experience it becomes, even with a coherent narrative. With every passing episode, the series only gets more surreal, and watching is like taking a nightmare-inducing pill that transports you into a humid climate where every other person has a Confederate flag on their car. If you’re familiar with Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, you might remember how about 12 and a half minutes of the movie is an elaborate, surreal and absurd dream sequence. To this day, that particular narrative choice is still unfathomable—that it even works in just the one movie is impressive—but when it comes to the dream-like nature (and actual dreams, or delusions) of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this series is arguably the closest any show or movie has gotten to capturing that spirit. In fact, the pilot has a scene that is so reminiscent of a scene from that movie—right down to a helicopter and ‘80s jam—that if it weren’t for the series clearly doing its own thing everywhere else in the episode, if would definitely be the weirdest attempt at ripping off Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion since that TV movie/backdoor pilot prequel.
With episodes ranging from 40-50 minutes, while On Becoming a God in Central Florida is classified as a “dark comedy,” it’s not a comedy hurt by being longer than the standard 20-30 minutes. In fact, the slightly-under-an-hour time marker proves to be perfect for the show, filling its time wisely while also allowing things to breathe. This is not a series that is in a rush, even if the “get-rich-quick” component would make it seem so. While On Becoming a God in Central Florida could easily work as a limited series—with a final scene that could easily be answered by the series co-creators in postmortems if it doesn’t make it past the first season—it also creates a perfect concept for a second season, with an unexpected potential for the future from a show that took a while to even find the right home.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida premieres Sunday, August 25th on Showtime.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.