The awkwardly lengthy title of Showtime’s new dark comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida seems indicative of a problem with the series: It doesn’t know when or how to stop.
The show has a lot going for it. Returning to the sort of broad satire she did early in her career with movies like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Dick, Kirsten Dunst stars as Krystal Stubbs, a white trash former pageant queen who has fallen on hard times in middle age. Krystal has a new baby and no money to raise it with. Despite being an obsessively hard worker, her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) is a gullible loser who’s sunk every dime they have into an Amway-style Multi-Level Marketing program called FAM. As anyone with the slightest bit of sense should be able to see, it’s a classic pyramid scheme. Krystal doesn’t seem to have any illusions about this, but Travis has an almost religious fanatism for the get-rich-quick philosophies taught by the program’s founder, Mr. Obie Garbeau II.
The Stinker Thinker
Perpetually believing himself to be right on the cusp of becoming a millionaire, Travis can’t seem to break even no matter how much product he moves to his downline. The stress of his situation has caused him terrible insomnia, and he’s on the road so much that he’s spent almost no time at all with his child, yet he continues to believe wholeheartedly in the Garbeau System and insists that everything will work out for them.
Krystal works at a water park and has no money for daycare, so she has to bring the baby with her. Travis pressures her to stock the park with FAM toilet paper and cleaning supplies, but her unsympathetic boss won’t have anything do to with the company’s low-quality junk.
Travis’ upline manager is a dweeby kid named Cody (Théodore Pellerin) who’s just as big a sucker for the Garbeau System as Travis is. Delusional about his imminent good fortune, Travis allows Cody to talk him into quitting his day job at an insurance company to work full time pushing FAM merchandise, even after promising Krystal that he wouldn’t. Unfortunately, on the same day he quits, Travis exits the story in a hilarious manner that’s almost too good to spoil.
Because Travis had stopped paying his life insurance a while ago, and is classified by FAM as an independent contractor rather than an employee, Krystal is left with nothing after he dies except crushing debt. Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) makes a big show of helicoptering in to attend Travis’ funeral, not to offer condolences, but to motivate all the FAM members in the area to work harder. He makes it clear to Krystal (crystal-clear, you might say) that he expects her to take over Travis’ position and pick up his slack. She’s disgusted by the suggestion.
In the second episode of the two-part premiere, Krystal’s debts come due and she’s visited by a surprisingly sympathetic repo agent named Rhonda (Da’vine Joy Randolph), who’d really like to be her friend but nonetheless has to start hauling away her possessions piece by piece. She’s also told by her bank that she has one week to pay $4,000 she doesn’t have if she wishes to avoid foreclosure proceedings.
Krystal reaches out to a former boss named Buzz (P.J. Marshall) hoping to get a second job as a saleswoman at his ATV dealership. The best he can offer is to hire her as a pageant coach for his moody teenage daughter. This gives Krystal an opportunity to demonstrate the very amusing talent that won her so many competitions in the past. Sadly, Buzz turns out to be a dick and lowballs her on the fee she tries to charge him. Their argument ends with Krystal losing the gig and getting nothing.
Without Travis busting his ass to move product, Cody struggles to replace him and retain his very important downline. He repeatedly tries to recruit Krystal to take over, but she wants nothing more to do with FAM. Eventually, on the advice of a rival FAM douchebag, Cody offers Krystal a $3k “upline advance” out of his own pocket if she’ll stay with FAM and work for him. With no other options, she negotiates to double that amount. As much as the idea of working for FAM repulses her, this will spare her, at least temporarily, from the brink of homelessness.
The episode ends with Krystal painfully removing the unsightly braces from her teeth, which were about to be repossessed anyway. She feels pretty good about her smile, and her prospects, but that’s about to change as spiteful Buzz reports her to the authorities for something she did earlier (again, I don’t really want to spoil all the best jokes here) that may cost her a $20,000 fine.
Premiere Verdict / Grade: B+
On Becoming a God in Central Florida has a lot of great qualities and a lot of promise. Dunst is pretty much perfectly suited for this material and, in the screen time he has, Alexander Skarsgård clearly has a lot of fun hiding his inherent studliness to play a dork. Also part of the cast are Mel Rodriguez from The Last Man on Earth as Krystal’s deeply depressed supervisor at the water park and Julie Benz from Dexter as a heartless FAM superior.
The show would make a really good half-hour comedy. Unfortunately, the episodes actually run about 45 minutes to an hour each, their pacing drags, and they don’t have nearly as many laughs as I’d like. To be fair, a few of the jokes do hit pretty hard, but the show goes for a mix of goofy comedy and depressing drama that doesn’t always blend. It also takes almost a full two hours for the central premise (Krystal joining the pyramid scheme cult) to develop.
Many of the proper pieces are in place, but some tightening and fine-tuning would go a long way to making this show really zing. With luck, it will find its way past these growing pains over time.
The series officially premieres on August 25th, but the first two episodes are available early On-Demand and on the Showtime Anytime app.