Watching Kirsten Dunst perform, you get the feeling she could take down just about anyone or anything—an immortal, a former mentor, a head of state, a crime outfit—with a mix of cleverness and sheer determination. The Emmy nominee (for Fargo season two, obviously) brings a certain physicality to these declarations of war: a narrowing of the eyes, squaring of the shoulders, the ominous but exciting curling of the lip. Dunst has only grown more formidable with time, depicting unattainable figures, historical and otherwise, with the same grace as women with more humble origins, who are too busy dealing with their realities to be someone else’s fantasy. If a Kirsten Dunst character doesn’t quite have the means to fight back or improve her situation, she usually has the will.
It’s a quality that carries over into and powers Dunst’s early ’90s-set Showtime series, On Becoming A God In Central Florida; at one point, an awed observer describes Krystal Stubbs’ (Dunst) drive as “a fearsome energy.” A riveting black comedy with hairpin turns in tone, On Becoming A God follows Krystal as she navigates disappointment, trauma, and new motherhood, all of which appear downright manageable compared to the nigh-impenetrable multi-level marketing scheme that is Founders American Merchandise, or FAM. While that acronym corresponds neatly with Amway, the series, from creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, scales pyramid schemes more generally, sending up their American dream-touting, worker-exploiting ways: Be your own boss (and that of your “downline”)! You’re a millionaire in training (but also lining the pockets of billionaires)!
As the chants become louder and the rituals more frequent, FAM sounds and looks more like a cult, right down to the demands for unquestioning obedience from its dulcet-toned leader, Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). Many inhabitants of this unnamed, Orlando-adjacent town fall under Obie’s spell, including Krystal’s husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård, dreaming of riches in a mousy-brown mullet) and Travis’ “upline” or supervisor, Cody Bonar (Theodore Pellerin). At first, Krystal can’t fathom the appeal of FAM—she sees right through the spurious claims about wealth and autonomy, in no small part because she knows what it’s like to be poor and a woman. When she sets out to understand the Garbeau System, she finds only more questions, questions about matters big and small: how could her husband have fallen for this nonsense? Are we supposed to search for a higher purpose or higher income bracket? And how exactly is she or anyone of similar circumstance supposed to advance in a game whose rules are constantly changing?
But as her consternation grows, so does Krystal’s resolve; a determined gleam is never far from her eyes, not even when she learns just unstable her family’s footing is. Dunst is magnificent when setting about bringing down a false idol—there is a near wordless scene early on involving pliers and a bathroom mirror that should go straight to her Emmy reel for next year. But she’s just as compelling in presenting the less certain side of Krystal, the part of her that wonders if she should take her baby Destinee to the emergency room over a spike in temperature, or who gradually shrinks at the mention of her traumatic upbringing. On Becoming A God recognizes Krystal’s bravery, even commends it; as viewers, so do we. But the show’s writers, including Funke and Lutsky, know TV doesn’t need another precipitous slide into anti-heroism. Krystal is much more complex: She’s not an avenging angel, she’s a human being with as many flaws as good intentions, which makes her story much more fascinating than just another iteration of a parent breaking bad.
Dunst is definitely the rock on which On Becoming A God builds its first season, but there are several other praiseworthy elements and performances. Levine oozes charm and malice in seersucker suits, providing a great foil for Krystal’s crimped-hair flintiness. Alongside Eric Allan Kramer, who’s racking up the dreamy summer series roles, Julie Benz acquits herself well on a return trip to Florida as one of FAM’s devotees. Some of the most poignant moments of the series are led by Mel Rodriguez, who plays Ernie, Krystal’s co-worker and manager of a waterpark that, rather pointedly, operates in the shadow of Disney World. Ernie’s unflagging optimism belies an inner turmoil that threatens to destroy the considerable measure of happiness he’s found with his wife Bets (Beth Ditto) and son. But Pellerin is a revelation: As true believer Cody Bonar (last name pronounced “Bone-ahr,” as if that makes any difference when you’re reading it), he reeks of desperation, which is matched only by his zeal, his utter conviction that the Garbeau system can be made To. Work. For. Him. And You! Cody’s tangle of limbs offer moments of great physical comedy, but Pellerin also finds a way to put that coltishness to more sinister use.
The exceptional cast handles the tonal shifts and more absurd developments with aplomb, but they can’t keep the season from losing steam in its final two episodes. When the wheels come off, it makes for an exciting stretch, but what follows feels a tad anticlimatic. It’s a quibble, though—the show doesn’t fall apart at the end, it just reveals its clay feet. Still, you have to admire the storytellers’ audacity and authenticity. On Becoming A God certainly steers into the “Florida-ness” of its setting—yes, there’s a gator attack—but it never mocks anyone just for living there. The show immerses itself in the decor of these working class homes, and the floral-denim-and-airbrushed-tee fashion of the decade and region. These people and this place are no less real than any other citizen or state; they weren’t spared in the recession of the early 1990s, an event that isn’t addressed directly but whose effects are felt nonetheless. Its characters may be tilting at windmills, but On Becoming A God In Central Florida remains wonderfully grounded.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run weekly.