I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beginning to think this “capitalism” thing might not be as great as we thought. That is the primary lesson in the first season of Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, an entertaining dark comedy for and possibly by Bernie Sanders supporters. Kirsten Dunst (who endorsed Bernie) stars as Krystal Stubbs, a young mother in early 90s Orlando who is working at a water park for minimum wage when she gets wrapped up in Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a multi-level marketing scheme that seems to more closely resemble a cult than an actual business.
The concept of FAM offers plenty of comedic fodder for the series, starting with the eccentric Obie Garbeau (played with hilarious intensity by Ted Levine) at the top, who rallies his downline troops with tapes touting the power of “The Garbeau System.” One true believer inspired by him is Cody Bonar, played by Theodore Pellerin, who is fanatical about the system, worships Garbeau, and is desperate to make it to the top of the pyramid. His character starts as one-dimensional in the first couple of episodes, but the slow peeling of his layers of personality and backstory ends up being one of the strengths of the series.
Dunst is the anchor of the show and gives a performance that should receive some awards attention. Her Stubbs character is determined, resourceful, and intelligent without ever becoming a Strong Independent Woman fantasy. She has flaws that feel real, and her desperate struggles for money and respect are played straight, even in goofy situations, which is part of the show’s tight balance of comedy and dark drama. And even when Stubbs is “winning” in the context of her goals from episode to episode, the viewer is left wondering if the victories are real, or if she is just becoming the type of dirty capitalist player that caused her to be in poverty to begin with.
Rounding out the strong supporting performances are Mel Rodriguez and Beth Ditto (a familiar name for music dorks) who play a married couple that is friends and neighbors with Stubbs. I recognized Rodriguez from the underrated HBO show Getting On and he gives a similarly sympathetic performance here as a well-meaning sad-sack guy who hides his despair beneath a veil of surface-level positivity. Ditto is fantastic in one of her first acting roles, and the two have a chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple (which is also aided by them looking like normal people, not glamorous actors).
Not everything quite works in this first season; a reporter character with a drug addiction who tries to investigate FAM feels underwritten and one character becomes Stubbs’ friend and babysitter in a relationship that is never quite fully fleshed-out on screen. Still, this show has stand-out performances, a lot of good twisted laughs, and a compelling plot that gradually gets stranger while saying a lot about how the concept of the American dream can be exploitative. There is also a second season on the way and a lot of room for growth with this premise and the main characters, so this would be worth watching even if we weren’t all stuck indoors.