“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is such a clever, compelling, and thorough evisceration of American capitalism it’s shocking Elizabeth Warren isn’t listed as an executive producer. Created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, Showtime’s new hourlong black comedy does feature a few well-known progressive producers in EPs George Clooney and Grant Heslov, but the ’90s-set story of lower-middle class Floridians put to ruin by a pyramid scheme isn’t solely a political statement; it chronicles a tragedy in action, as the promise of the American dream is ripped away from those who believe in it — and need it — the most. Like any great satire, you won’t be able to tell if you’re laughing so hard it hurts, or if you’ve just been punched in the gut.
The awesome Kirsten Dunst (also an EP) is the story here, bringing a captivating vitality and unflinching veracity to her lead character, Krystal Stubbs. A the beginning, however, the starry-eyed dreamer is embodied by none other than a mullet-sporting, profusely sweaty (like, Justin Theroux-level sweaty), and stunningly unfashionable Alexander Skarsgård. Travis Stubbs, husband to Krystal, is a frustrated insurance salesman who’s become discontented with his one-story house, compact car, and average lifestyle. His wife clocks in and out at the local water park while he slaves away at two jobs: his nine-to-five desk gig and spearheading his own company — well, not exactly his own company.
Though his FAM brethren would remind Travis he’s absolutely his own boss, the tall, lanky, former football star still spends his nights making door-to-door deliveries, stocking boxes in his garage, or recruiting new “downlines” — aka “independent contractors” who give part of their profits to Travis, who in turns gives part of his cut to his “upline,” and so on and so forth.
They’re all hocking Founders American Merchandise, which is, of course, a pyramid scheme. It’s a cultish, multibillion-dollar pyramid scheme, but a pyramid scheme nonetheless. Sitting at the top is Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), a mustachioed millionaire whose deep voice fills the motivational tapes his FAM family is required to purchase. Obie is only accessible to those Jefferson-level members, and only then via crowded retreats where each FAM couple does a song and dance in the hopes of five minutes with the company founder.
If that sounds like a lot for anyone to take, rest assured the series depicts the obsessive fandom surrounding Obie quite well, illustrating a thorough and convincing mass brainwashing where there’s an answer to every question and an encouragement for every doubt. Even those who’ve avoided recruitment have a hard time keeping their brains from dreaming of the rewards these hucksters promise, in part because their enthusiasm is otherworldly. The most convincing member is Travis’ own upline, Cody (Théodore Pellerin), whose fanatical fandom over Obie and FAM is like seeing a DCEU Twitter troll spring to life: He’s so thoroughly bought into a sham, and yet he’s so impossibly joyous about his own gullibility.
Patti Perret / Sony / Showtime
Pellerin’s conviction is thrilling to behold, especially considering how much intensity he has to bring to each layer of Cody’s fragile psyche, just to keep his baseline state as a jubilant con man believable. The cast overall is working at a top level, with Skarsgård operating miles away from his Emmy-winning smooth talker on “Big Little Lies” and Mel Rodriguez mining new depths as the lovable, good-hearted family man audiences got to know in “The Last Man on Earth.”
But this is Dunst’s series. From the start, you can tell there’s something special about her and Krystal; the latter doesn’t take any of Cody’s bullshit. She’s not some doting wife, worried about her husband’s work ethic while turning a blind (or oblivious) eye to the Sisyphean mountain he’s trying to climb. Krystal sees things clearly. She values what they already have and is trying to hold her family together while raising a newborn and making minimum wage. She speaks to Travis clearly and forcefully, telling him what he needs to hear in the only way he might be able to listen.
At one point in the premiere, Krystal says, “I will not be poor again,” and Dunst emphasizes the line so clearly, it defines her backstory and sets her path forward. You understand Krystal then, so that each choice that follows makes perfect sense. There are times when Dunst flaunts unexpected emotional nuance that deepens our ties to Krystal — in how she skins an alligator, for instance, or when she unveils a former, unparalleled dance routine — but the true power of her turn comes in how the actor is able to make the audience relate to Krystal as anyone and everyone. The fear of an indebted life — one controlled by lenders, collectors, and powerful institutions you can’t even put a face to — that’s a real fear, and Dunst acknowledges the trepidation while fighting tooth and nail against it every second of the way.
Set against the absurd splendor of the southeastern Sunshine State, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” squeezes quite a bit of creative juice out of this particular orange. The locales are lively yet unexaggerated; the cast is quirky yet never to the point of distraction; the arcs are peculiar — at one point, a man wrestles a giant pelican with his bare hands — and yet they make a lot of sense as they’re happening. In that way, the series can resemble the very pyramid scheme its critiquing, but this story never feels like a lie. You don’t have to be well-acquainted with Florida, or to have just watched “The Florida Project” to see a struggling working class in this country.
Through some savvy narrative maneuvering, “On Becoming a God” connects the charlatans and con men of FAM to politicians, corporate overlords, and America’s 1 percent, as well — all the wealthy people up top, only working to keep their downlines in service. Showtime’s strong new series never forgets about the individuals who still think America is working for them, nor does it treat them with disdain. “Central Florida” understands how attractive the offer can look, and punches up at the liars instead of down at anyone eager to buy in. The surroundings might be pink and shiny, but the good folks like Krystal Stubbs, with their noses forever pressed to window of their dream home, are as real as they come. If only someone had a plan to fix things for ’em…
“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” premieres Sunday, Aug. 25 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. The first two episodes are streaming now — free of charge, no subscription needed — on the network’s YouTube channel.