Pop Culturing: 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida,' with Kirsten Dunst, is a Bonkers Ride

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday August 23, 2019

Kirsten Dunst in "On Becoming a God in Central Florida."
Kirsten Dunst in "On Becoming a God in Central Florida."  (Source:Patti Perret/Showtime)

Kirsten Dunst gives her all in the new dramedy "On Becoming a God in Central Florida," debuting on Showtime Sunday. (The first two episodes are currently available to watch via YouTube.) Set in 1992 in an Orlando suburb, Dunst plays Krystal Stubbs, a hardworking and underpaid mother of a small baby and wife to Travis (an off-the-wall Alexander Skarsgard). After spending her days employed at a struggling waterpark right outside Disney World, Krystal comes home to her often manic husband, who is paying less attention to his job (or a "j-o-b" as Travis calls it) as an insurance salesman, and focusing more on getting involved with the cultish pyramided scheme called Founders American Merchandise, or F.A.M.

Krystal is sick and tired of putting up with Travis and his devotion to F.A.M. He's poured thousands of his family's dollars into buying useless F.A.M. products and merchandise — hoping to sell them to others and recruit them into the organization. Krystal can't seem to talk sense into Travis and pull him out of F.A.M. His devotion to F.A.M. is mostly because of Travis's upline (or, his boss) Cody, played by Canadian actor Théodore Pellerin in a breakout role.

Cody is a cartoonish Type-A beta male that promises the world to the Stubbs family (if you quit your "j-o-b" and join F.A.M. fulltime, you'll finally be happy, he claims) and he's the shining star in "On Becoming a God"; it's hard to take your eyes off of him anytime Pellerin is on screen. Krystal can see through his snakeskin suit and half-truths while Travis, who fell into F.A.M. while struggling with alcohol addiction, eats it up. Over the course of the 10-episode season (each episode is about an hour long), Krystal goes down a bonkers rabbit hole, burrowing deeper and deeper into F.A.M. where the mysterious and possibly mentally unwell Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) sits atop the strange pyramid. Her decision to sink herself into the organization is sparked by a truly shocking twist in the first episode that involves a mystical white moose but that will not be spoiled here.

Théodore Pellerin in a scene from "On Becoming a God in Central Florida." Photo credit: Patti Perret/Showtime

"On Becoming a God" offers spectacle and Dunst at her best. The show also features "Last Man on Earth" star Mel Rodriguez as Krystal's good-natured coworker and neighbor Ernie and singer Beth Ditto (yes, you read that right), who gives a wonderful and warm performance as Ernie's wife Bets. The show is peppered with outrageous moments but it is centered by Dunst's performance where she plays Krystal with so much drive, you often wonder if she's breaking bad or even a complete manipulative psychopath. It's great to see Dunst as an anti-hero and the show is a smart satire on the American dream.

Created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, "On Becoming a God" was originally going to be directed and co-produced by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Favourite," "The Lobster") but during the development process, he dropped out of the project. It's poor form to critique something on what it is not but it is hard not to see what he would have done with "On Becoming a God." Lanthimos's off-kilter and deadpan tone would have been welcomed to this dramedy, which is ultimately enjoyable but lacks that certain punch to send it over the top into a show you'd have to tune into. The dramedy is strange to be sure (George Clooney, along with Dunst herself serve as executive producers) but there's still a lot to be desired from "On Becoming a God." There is a live-wire energy at the get-go of the show but that ebbs and flows throughout the uneven freshman season. At its best, the show is a platform for some fantastic performances.

Alexander Skarsgard in a scene from "On Becoming a God in Central Florida." Photo credit: Patti Perret/Showtime

"On Becoming a God" is the latest story that follows people struggling to make ends meaet who happen to live in Florida — a subgenre that seems to have popped up a number of times since Donald Trump took office. Most notably, the 2017 film "The Florida Project," directed by Sean Baker, featured a young single mother raising her child in a dingy motel outside of Disney World. That same year, the TNT show "Claws" debuted. Starring Niecy Nash, that show follows a group of manicurists in of Manatee County, Florida who are sucked into the world of organized crime and eventually work their way up to the top. There's a lot of similarities between "Claws" and "On Becoming a God." Both feature strong women who give fantastic performances but what they both examine is how the American dream seems impossible in our current climate. Having grit and a good work ethic will not make you prosper in the land of the free, especially if you're a woman. In order to survive, you have to play the game. In "On Becoming a God" that means literally blasting your way through a cult run by a madman.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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