There is a moment in the pilot episode of On Becoming a God in Central Florida that makes it clear that this is a series unlike no other on television right now. Specifically, an alligator eats a man whole. Fully chomps on Travis Stubbs (Alexander Skarsgård) after he’s driven his car into a marsh off a central Florida highway. His wife Krystal (Kirsten Dunst) is called to the scene, but she can hardly handle the concept of her newly-eaten husband’s death. To say that is the only absurd moment in the first episode of the new Showtime series would be overlooking a large portion of the show’s inaugural hour, but it’s the alligator that confirms it—this show is insane.
But the dark comedy of the Kirsten Dunst-led On Becoming a God in Central Florida works so well because it takes no reservations in presenting a fully saturated, unapologetic dive into absurdism. The entire series might have been a wash from the beginning if it weren’t for the talents of Dunst, who plays a beauty-queen-turned-pyramid-scheme-prisoner. Krystal is locked in a marriage with a baby, two mortgages, and a delusional husband when the aforementioned gator feasting sends her life into a spiral. She is tasked with reconciling the personal tragedy of being widowed with the financial realization that her husband’s very large buy-in to the fictional FAM product pyramid scheme falls directly into her hands.
Companies like FAM represent any number of door-to-door pyramid schemes most American have likely encountered—knife sets, beauty products, book packages. They’re the kind of businesses that prey on those in poverty, loosely promising a path to wealth if you work hard enough. They also trap those like Skarsgård’s Travis into mountains of debt and unmovable product. His death left such a large hole that Krystal is not only saddled with boxes of FAM product, but debt that leads to repossession. But in the wake of her husband’s death and the massive financial hole he left their family in, Krystal is no prey. Her character represents a reckoning of the system. If sheer anger can supersede socioeconomic status, then Krystal will do what her husband couldn’t.
The role of Krystal is practically tailored to the types of characters Dunst thrives playing. In a way, Dunst has been training for years to lead a series riddled with giant bangs and ’90s light wash jeans. Two decades ago, she played the younger, precocious version of Krystal in Drop Dead Gorgeous—a film that has since garnered its own cult following. Years later, she was an Emmy front runner for her turn as Peggy Blumquist in FX’s Fargo. If there were ever an actress in the industry right now to play a volatile, determined force of nature with adult braces, it’s Dunst.
Amid the chaos of the first few episodes, it’s Dunst’s tenacity that grounds the series. Yes, an alligator ate her husband, and yes, she wears her hilariously ornate funeral gown to go find and kill it with a shotgun, but there’s something specifically human about her performance that makes it all relatable. At the very edge of her frustration, Krystal channels her rage into action. Krystal may be foul-mouthed and on the verge of poverty, but she’s nothing short of quick-witted. Those wits might not be the most conventional, but they’re Krystal’s.
The pilot gives way to the greater (slightly less absurd) premise of the show: when absolutely forced to, how exactly does one climb the ladder of a business designed to keep its salespeople down? Krystal re-enters the FAM business model with the intention of steamrolling anyone who gets in the way of her rectifying her financial situation. As she says in the pilot to her poorly-fated husband, “I won’t be poor again.” She uses her rage-filled resolved to begin enlisting those around in the business model that nearly ruined her entire life. The supporting cast (especially Beth Ditto’s Bets) round out a hilarious line up that pushes the series well past caricature and more into self-aware campiness.
Set across an Orlando-adjacent backdrop, the series creates a unique sense of desperation that might entice someone to pursue stake in a pyramid scheme. It’s that unique sense of desperation—you know, the gator death—that might justify such an insane exit strategy. In the world of FAM and Central Florida, only crazy can beat crazy. Part dark comedy, part commentary on the American working class of the 90s, there’s something about On Becoming a God in Central Florida that feels relevant to 2019. Whether that is a crumbling middle class or the existential fear that most Americans lives are just a few tragedies from ruin, Showtime’s newest series taps into something so equally hilarious and vapid that it can only be American.