Florida water park employee Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) earns the nickname “the alligator widow” after her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), works himself into bleary-eyed exhaustion and, then, gator-inhabited waters. Travis fell victim to a friendly neighborhood pyramid scheme, Founders American Merchandise, whose promises of wealth and prosperity prompted him to dump the family’s life savings—including their mortgage and life insurance—into FAM’s coffers, leaving Krystal holding both the bag and their baby. As conceived by Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, this vision of 1992 America is a morass of hucksters and hollow promises, and the series explores that world with both a sharp eye and a peculiar sense of humor.
FAM is fronted by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), a mustachioed messiah figure whose plans and philosophies are distributed via cassette tape to the pyramid scheme’s participants. Fueled by a volatile combo of spite and desperation, Krystal has had all she can stand of Garbeau and true believers like her husband’s “upline” supplier, Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin). As Krystal, Dunst is a whirlwind of charisma, and she makes you believe that the character, as her mask of Southern-accented politeness dangles by a thread, can take on the whole system by herself. Yet her schemes to do so often send her tumbling back to the bottom time and again, dragging people like her manager and neighbor, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), down with her.
Krystal doesn’t even want to get rich, much less do it quick; she just wants some stability, to the point where she takes on odd jobs like teaching a water aerobics class. But through some cruel confluence of fate and capitalism, she has to get in deep with FAM to get permission to fill her class with the people below her on the FAM pyramid. She’s paid two dollars per aerobics attendee, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when she needs to get her home’s utilities turned back on and doesn’t want to sleep in the water park’s supply room.
What keeps On Becoming a God from succumbing to suffocating bleakness is its silly tone, that toothy, dead-eyed smile with which it regards a faintly psychopathic Americana. It’s filled with weird cult terminology and self-consciously goofy names, from a FAM blasphemer being called a “stinker-thinker” to characters frequently mistaking Bonar for various pronunciations of “boner.” Even Garbeau’s name sounds like “garbage.” The show’s imagery grows more dreamlike and hallucinatory as the season progresses, from Garbeau viciously smashing all the fruit in his refrigerator to Krystal being immersed in a womb-like tub that’s supposed to let her re-experience her own birth. When you follow the myth of exceptional American individualism this far into the weeds, the series posits, nothing makes sense anymore.
The show’s brand of dark, quirky comedy, however, feels stretched a bit thin over 10 episodes of at least 40 minutes each. Suggesting an excellent half-hour comedy saddled with an excess of incident, On Becoming a God doesn’t always know when to pull back on its weird developments and ironical names, resulting in a tone that can feel as derisive as it does empathetic toward people struggling to survive under capitalism. The longer people drone on about “the Garbeau system,” innocently suggest Olive Garden is their idea of fancy, and use “stinker-thinker” with real conviction, the fuzzier the line gets between laughing at the system’s absurdity and just laughing at people we’re supposed to see as suckers.
When the comedy does work, the series keenly captures our dubious relationship with the prospect of wealth, as when Cody praises Krystal by calling her a “millionaire in waiting.” She and the others under FAM’s thumb aren’t kept down by any dearth of ingenuity so much as their lack of power. At worst, they’re naïve due to immersion in a culture that encourages them to regard the wealthy with adulation rather than skepticism, and in such moments, the series engenders sympathy: If the show’s eccentric world hardly makes sense to us, how can it make sense to the characters caught up in its various scams? On Becoming a God may take place in 1992, but its myriad absurdities are resonant reminders of how tough it is to “get ahead,” and how easy it is to get lost in the labyrinth of capitalism.