On Becoming A God in Central Florida: it’s not all about the money, honey
We’re three episodes into On Becoming A God In Central Florida (a mouthful you can shorten from either end) and the story so far is this: Krystal Stubbs – the spelling of the name speaks volumes – is married to Travis Stubbs, who is hopelessly entrenched in a get-rich pyramid scheme called FAM.
At the end of the first episode, Travis (played by Alexander Skarsgård from True Blood, unrecognisable if you haven’t been told) makes his exit in a scene most TV critics decided to refrain from revealing. It has to be really good if these hardened hacks won’t deliver a spoiler.
Krystal (Kirsten Dunst), who works at a crappy water park for minimum wage and has a baby daughter, wasn’t into the whole FAM vibe in the first place, but she finds out real quick just how bad things really are. There’s no money, there’s more than one mortgage on her house, and there is a ridiculous number of FAM products that Travis bought but hadn’t sold on to others (which, as far as I can gather, is how the scheme works, in theory).
FAM, or Founders American Merchandise, is truly terrifying, creepy and deeply sinister in its cultish fervour, chanting, flag-waving, motivational slogans, inspirational cassette tapes (it’s set in the early 1990s), and robotic supporters with glazed eyes who are seduced by the promise of great riches, lavish lifestyles and flitting about in helicopters.
Preying on people this way, promising them false hope, is quite sickening, but that’s how cults work and it’s for us viewers to contemplate.
The on-screen action is darkly funny (for example, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment with a parrot towards the end of episode 3: oh, I felt so bad for laughing), and the writing is sharp and witty. It feels like it’s only just warming up.
“To me, this really is a story about a single mother.” – star and executive producer Kirsten Dunst
“It’s hard to live up to a title like On Becoming a God in Central Florida – and at first the new Showtime dramedy seems doomed to disappoint,” wrote Judy Berman for Time. “A miscast Skarsgard sets the stage for a broad, mean-spirited satire. But once he’s sidelined – in an early twist too insane to spoil – the delightful Central Florida belongs to Dunst.
“The role suits Dunst’s perky intensity, calling back to her turns in Fargo and Drop Dead Gorgeous, and grounds polemic from first-time creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky in a smart, mostly sympathetic protagonist.
“Its supporting characters are vivid: One step above Travis in the FAM hierarchy is Cody (Théodore Pellerin), a type-A twerp with a masochistic streak. Krystal’s kind, married co-worker Ernie (Mel Rodriguez) gets sucked in because he feels drawn to her for reasons he can’t or won’t understand.”
By episode 3, we are seeing the cogs in Krystal’s head turning as she realises that, although she has the opportunity to bring the house of cards tumbling down, she has certain skills that she can apply to this game, yet play by her own rules and to her own advantage. Will she have a crisis of conscience at some point, though?
On Becoming A God – or Central Florida, if you prefer – is Dunst’s pet project (she is an executive producer) and it took some time for it to find its way to Showtime.
“It sat at AMC for a while. I think they changed hands. They were going in a new direction. So when it finally did find a home [at YouTube Premium], it was kind of great because they let us do whatever we wanted, which is really nice that we weren’t in a place where everything was so nitpicked. And then when Showtime picked it up, I was so thankful because it’s a platform that people have, and I like that it comes out once a week. It found a home that could promote it and be proud of it and now go on a second journey with us,” said Dunst in a Hollwood Reporter interview.
“She’s like a survivalist,” says Dunst of her character. “She has a daughter to take care of, so she’ll do whatever she can not to put her in that position that she was in as a kid. So to me this really is a story about a single mother.”
New episodes appear weekly on M-Net 101 and DStv Now (Mondays at 9pm).