Image: On Becoming A God In Central Florida (Showtime)
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In On Becoming A God In Central Florida, the myth of the American Dream is deadly.

The show’s excellent pilot tracks Travis Stubbs (Alexander Skarsgård with a mullet), whose life has been swallowed up by Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a multilevel marketing company that looks more like a religion than a business. Or, at least, that’s exactly what the FAM bosses want its workers to think. Capitalism is a curse, and On Becoming A God In Central Florida delves into what that really means on a personal, zoomed-in, everyday level. Because shortly after Travis gets swallowed up by FAM to the point where he quits his day J-O-B (a cursed word in FAM parlance to the point where its disciples only spell it out), he gets swallowed up by a gator. On a shock level, it’s a genuinely effective twist that taps into the show’s twisted sense of humor. But on a deeper story level, it shifts the spotlight to the real star of the show: Kirsten Dunst’s Krystal Stubbs.

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Travis and Krystal have wildly different definitions of success, and that tension percolates beneath their marriage throughout the pilot. Travis has dreams of grandeur and believes he’s destined for something bigger than his desk job. He’s the perfect target for FAM, which capitalizes on the exact kind of desperate ambition of men like Travis. He promises Krystal vacations. He promises her a helicopter. He makes all these promises while simultaneously not being able to pay the mortgage on time. Krystal is less concerned with thriving and more concerned with surviving. She works hard at a waterpark and supports her husband’s pursuits out of love but only up to a point. She isn’t the complacent, perfected FAM wife at all. She has grit. She has conviction, and she tells Travis she’ll leave him if he really does quit his job to go full-time FAM. She’s thinking of her kid and of the immediate future; Travis is looking so far ahead to a future that probably won’t ever happen that he can’t see what’s right in front of him.

Dunst is at the top of her game. It seems like a stretch to call her underrated given how long she has been in the business and how big of a star she is, but she’s rarely talked about in the same way as other long-working actresses who have huge range. But she should be. Dunst can harness so many tones and emotions, often at the same time, and as Krystal, she’s both funny and a little terrifying, both magnetic and abrasive. Dunst has a full-bodied approach the role, carrying Krystal’s exhaustion in the way she moves.

And while Dunst stands out, On Becoming A God is supplemented with strong performances from the rest. Obviously, there’s Skarsgård, who’s memorable in what turns out to be a truncated role. Julie Benz makes a brief appearance, and I look forward to more, because she is a truly underrated performer. Théodore Pellerin brings a manic energy to Cody, Travis’ FAM boss who is even more intoxicated by the FAM sham than Travis and preaches the good word like a self-righteous cult leader. Cody is evidence of just how effective FAM’s strategy is; convince these folks they’re becoming gods, not cogs in a capitalist machine, and they’ll do anything.

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The twisted humor winds its way throughout the pilot. The zeal of the FAM way is over-the-top and borderline dystopian. It’s easy to watch it with a sense of remove, especially because of how laughably pathetic Travis is. But On Becoming A God In Central Florida doesn’t let us forget that this is real; it isn’t satire. The FAM stuff gets played for laughs...until it doesn’t. Pyramid schemes ruin lives, and the weirdness that the pilot taps into unearths humor and darkness all at once.

When Travis and Krystal host a FAM event, we’re positioned in Krystal’s perspective. She looks out into the cheering, invigorated crowd, and her face reveals that she sees something much darker. She sees through the carefully constructed sheen of FAM but also wants to support her husband. FAM hides the sinister truth behind platitudes and jargon, like ranks that make it sound almost like Scientology. The pilot’s twist ending doesn’t mince meaning: The pursuit of power—especially in the way Travis defines it—can be lethal.

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Stray observations

  • As a lifelong Kirsten Dunst fan and lifetime television fan, I am thrilled to be living in the Golden Age of Kirsten Dunst On Television.
  • My Floridian girlfriend has informed me that Dunst’s accent is “more Panhandle than central Florida.” I wonder if that’s an oversight or if we’re going to learn more about Krystal’s past and find out where exactly she’s from. Her “I won’t be poor again” moment hints at a specific past, and I want to know more!
  • I also asked my Floridian girlfriend if alligators really just eat humans like that, and the short answer was “no.”
  • Skarsgård always looks so physically different in all of his roles that sometimes I forget it’s him.
  • “I don’t beg” is hands down the best moment in the pilot.

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