One of the nice byproducts of Peak TV is that the odds are a little better for the weird shows.
And by weird, I mean original — series that don’t fit into the TV cookie-cutter machine that so many writers, networks, and viewers have become dependent on. The originals — like Showtime’s new “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” — can often best be described by what they are not: crime or legal procedurals, superhero origin stories, reboots, sitcoms, supernatural soap operas, or family melodramas. They aren’t even necessarily comedies or dramas but some ratio of both.
Like AMC’s alchemy-in-SoCal underdog “Lodge 49,” or Amazon’s romance-in-death one-season pleasure “Forever,” “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” follows no familiar rules. Even the title has a will of its own — it’s long and it doesn’t easily fix in the memory or flow off the tongue. If it were a network show, the title would have been quickly nixed, replaced with something stickier such as “Minimum Wage,” since it contains a strong money-struggle theme. Here’s a tip, though: If you can’t remember the title, you can call it “Kirsten Dunst’s show,” since it fully belongs to her.
Dunst stars as Krystal Stubbs, a wife and mother of a baby named Destiny, who essentially decides to stop being a naïve loser. She works at a water park in her Florida town, which the show identifies as “Orlando-adjacent,” and she’s stretched so thin she sometimes needs to bring the baby to the office. It’s 1992, and she and her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgard), are chasing an American dream of money and happiness, Disney-ized as it may be. But Travis is deeply involved in a cult — Founders American Merchandise, or FAM — that is essentially a pyramid scheme. He has to sign up buyers for household products sold by the cult, whose hackneyed how-to-live tapes he listens to obsessively, and he is eager to jump up a level — the level that his neurotic boss, Cody (a remarkable Theodore Pellerin), occupies. Above them all, the Madoff of the game, is Ted Levine’s Obie Garbeau II, who can work FAM audiences into a frenzy with his jargon-filled speeches.
It’s all baloney, and deep down, Krystal knows it. The ordinary people in FAM, such as Travis, are being brainwashed by those above them on the pyramid, the vampiric bosses who are taking home their money. She understands that FAM followers are seduced by the fantasy of wealth — but their aspirations will never be met. The show doesn’t openly gesture toward the political or the religious, but it stealthily serves as a metaphor. We see financially strapped Americans placing their trust in the promises of rich men — even if it’s not in their interest, even if those men need to keep them down in order to rise.
The first episodes twist and turn and ultimately put Krystal in the FAM business, milking it as best she can. She decides to work within the system, despite its moral glitches, rather than reject it. In a way, she is breaking bad. We also follow the personal lives of those around her, notably her neighbor and water park boss, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez from “The Last Man on Earth”), who is growing ragged working in a place where everyone is meant to be happy. We also get a few kicky dance sequences and an alligator skinning, courtesy of the imaginations of the show’s creators, Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky. At one point, Cody, who is a FAM believer of the first order, has verbal skirmishes with a member of another silly cult that are clever and wonderful.
Dunst is perfect for the role — believable as a small-town girl, as she was in season two of “Fargo,” but also, as Krystal takes charge of her life, intuitive and driven. As she exclaims, “I won’t be poor again,” you feel her commitment to playing the role without any camp. When we meet Krystal, she is wearing braces — a symbol of her enslavement — and the scene of their removal is a scene of liberation, as she decides to do what she must to support her family. As Ernie, Rodriguez is lovable but mysteriously disturbed by his work; he embodies the existential blues of 9-to-5 life. And Pellerin nearly steals the show with his high-strung passion for FAM, fueled by, among other things, his troubled relationship with his father and mother. He’s desperately fronting happiness and success but, in this plastic fantastic Orlando-adjacent world, perhaps the truth will out.
ON BECOMING A GOD IN CENTRAL FLORIDA
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Theodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine, Julie Benz, Alexander Skarsgard. On Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.