Another week, another star-powered, premium-cable series targeting and satirizing a group of charlatans in the South.
First, we saw the premiere of HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones” with John Goodman as the patriarch of a family of con artists cloaked in televangelists’ spangled clothing.
Now comes Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” with Kirsten Dunst delivering a knockout performance as a struggling single mother caught up in the world of multilevel marketing, with its empty promises of how you can become your own boss, control your own destiny and realize the American dream!
If you can just recruit hundreds other saps to sell a line of crappy products.
(But even if that happened, you’d be broke because the dude at the top of the pyramid is vacuuming up all of the cash.)
Despite the fierce and funny work by Dunst throughout the 10-episode run of the first season and some hilariously Florida-centric moments in the first few shows, “On Becoming a God …” eventually slows to a chug and relies too often on shock-comedy moments and increasingly ridiculous scenarios involving buffoonish, one-dimensional supporting players.
Set mostly in an Orlando-adjacent community in the Bush-Quayle, chunky cordless home phone, VHS, dubious fashion trend year of 1992, “On Becoming a God …” stars Dunst as Krystal Stubbs, who works a crummy, low-paying job at the downscale water park Rebel Rapids — the kind of place families reluctantly attend because they can’t afford admission to a certain world-famous theme park just five minutes away.
It might take a scene or two for you to realize that’s Alexander Skarsgard underneath the mullet and the prosthetics and the overbite as Krystal’s husband Travis, a hapless insurance salesman with a serious drinking problem who changes his life (or so he believes) when he joins the team of Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a cult-level pyramid scheme run by the legendary, charismatic, white suit-wearing Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine).
Travis becomes a superstar recruiter for FAM and is so devoted to the program he quits his day job in dramatic fashion so he can spend every waking moment living that FAM life.
And that’s about the time an alligator chomps Travis to death because this is Florida.
Left alone with their baby, Krystal is stunned to learn Travis had stopped paying his life insurance premiums to put every cent into the purchase of FAM products, leaving her broke and basically screwed and about to lose her house.
Krystal decides to fight back against FAM from within. She takes over Travis’ clients, goes all-in on the FAM system and makes it her mission in life to get some one-on-one time with Obie Garbeau II himself, who almost never has any personal contact with the rank and file.
But what Krystal really wants to do is teach water aerobics — basically Jazzercise in the pool. She’s got a knack for it, and she has a plan to franchise it.
Dunst throws herself into the water aerobics sequences with pure gusto, as Krystal beams with joy while performing some, shall we say, underwhelming calisthenics. She’s a marvel to watch, whether “On Becoming a God …” requires her to do light comedy, slapstick farce or drama.
Theodore Pellerin plays Krystal’s immediate superior, aka “upline,” Cody, a creepy little trust-fund weasel whom Krystal seduces because Cody can lead her to Obie Garbeau II’s doorstep. Poor pathetic Cody all too readily submits to Krystal’s sexual and psychological humiliation, at one point plunging his head into the toilet bowl because she has just told him to plunge his head into the toilet bowl.
If that doesn’t sound particularly funny to you, I agree.
Another storyline involves Krystal’s theme-park colleague and neighbor Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), who gets sucked into the FAM world because he trusts and likes Krystal. (Even as Krystal vows her revenge on Obie et al., she’s can be quite the user of people herself without even blinking an eye.)
“On Becoming a God …” has a few standout episodes, including the pilot and a midseason trip to a FAM retreat, where Obie presides over a gathering of top-level earners — all of them white, nearly all of them married and all of them hopelessly trapped in a world of denial because, for all the smiling and cheering and glass-clinking and chanting, they’re all going broke because their “bonus checks” don’t begin to cover the money they’ve laid out.
But down the home stretch, just when we should be most involved and invested, too many developments feel arbitrary and forced, and there’s far more weirdness and wackiness than well-earned, well-executed dramatic/comedic payoffs.
In FAM jargon, non-believers and naysayers are labeled “Stinker Thinkers.”
Sign me up for that group.