'On Becoming God in Central Florida' episodes 1 and 2: Gullible husband's American dream leaves Kirsten Dunst's Krystal Stubbs in ruin
The series' first two episodes, released online for free by Showtime, takes its time setting up the shows' central premise about the hollow American dream by depicting an Amway-like multi-level marketing scheme in an Orlando-adjacent town in the early 90s
This article contains spoilers for 'On Becoming God in Central Florida' episodes 1 and 2
It is no coincidence 'On Becoming God in Central Florida' starts with a slow pan across a church-like ceiling to the voice booth where Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) spews his motivational marketing spiel that mixes self-help cliches and the promise of the American dream. The "Garbeau system" and the FAM (Founders American Merchandise) multilevel marketing company featured in 'On Becoming God in Central Florida' is a thinly veiled reference to Amway (short for "American Way").
The company's recruitment drives and rallies have been compared to religious revival meetings around the "gospel of prosperity". It has also been pulled up several times for its pyramid scheme-like business practices, where Amway IBOs (Independent Business Owners) typically get more money from commissions from sales made by the distributors they recruit than actually selling Amway products.
FAM is also a potent mix of the aspirational "Garbeau system" that asks its followers to rise in the ranks by recruiting "downliners" to get rich and the heady promise that American "free enterprise" will bag millions for the "Go-Getters" who "Go-Get". One of the FAM fanatics, Cody, says "It's not about the money."
For those who have bought into the cult, sacrificing savings and their family's future for it, it truly isn't. It is about being part of something aspirational. The money they spend is in the hope that it will buy them an entrance into a winner's circle that their social backgrounds won't allow them into.
It is about getting out of the dead-end jobs they are destined to die at for a chance at grasping the American dream. Of the chance of becoming winners, even though they have only ever held losing cards.
Alexander Skarsgard, all toothy smiles and shining eyes, is Travis Stubbs, the gullible dork who is a devotee. He worships at the altar of FAM (Founders American Merchandise) by buying every motivational tape Garbeau makes and thousands of dollars of FAM products to move up the ranks of the FAM pyramid.
The only problem is that he is not "downlining" products to new recruits as quickly as he is buying them from his "upline" manager, Cody (Théodore Pellerin), who in turn reports to Carole Wilkes (Julie Benz). This despite getting only "10 hours of sleep a week", juggling a job at an insurance company and going on FAM recruitment drives.
His wife, Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst), a former pageant queen and new mother, all dead-eyed with cynicism is a "stinker thinker" in FAM terminology who can smell the BS her husband can't. She is sick of the thousands of dollars worth of FAM junk products eating up space in her home without earning a red cent.
But, because she wants to support her husband, she reluctantly participates in FAM rallies and turns up at FAM "upliner" Carol Wilkes' house for sessions on how to support her husband's marketing activities. What she is not OK with is Travis quitting his job to become a full-time FAM man.
By the end of Episode 1, Travis, hallucinating because of lack of sleep, drives his car into a swamp where a gator makes a quick meal of him. This is right after he has quit his job on the equally delusional Cody's encouragement and against his wife's violent disapproval.
Cody and Carol are then left with figuring out how to pull Krystal into filling her husband's spot on the pyramid. But even Garbeau II's appearance at Travis' funeral (which he turns into a FAM rally) is not enough to sway Krystal. All she can do is kill the gator that ate her husband as she screams in impotent rage.
In episode 2, we see just how big of a mess Krystal is in. Travis has got a double mortgage on their house and the bank threatens to foreclose without a $4000 downpayment. In the meantime, everything of value is repossessed by Rhonda, one of the nicest repo ladies ever to grace our screens.
Out of desperation, she asks Stan (Usman Ally), the owner of the waterpark she works a minimum wage job at, for "a raise, an advance, something." Instead, he says she can be the new water-obics instructor that will net her 16 bucks a week. She then turns to her "Miss Zuber" roots when she asks her former boss, Buzz (P.J. Marshall) and "Zuber pageant" sponsorer for a second job as a saleswoman at his ATV dealership.
He offers her a free ATV and the job of a pageant coach for his goth teen daughter. Only, he is an A-hole who had molested Krystal when she was a Miss Zuber, a fact she reveals in front of his daughter when he tries to lowball her on her coaching fees.
Her coaching gig goes up in smoke and so does her ATV. Buzz, in a vengeful mood, also calls the authorities on her for "gator poaching" that carries a fine of $10,000. The only light at the end of the tunnel is when Cody shows up (after coaching by a rival competitor who also runs a FAM-like scheme) with $3000 if Krystal agrees to take her husband's place. Krystal agrees if Cody "doubles the money".
'On Becoming God in Central Florida' is filled with such despicable characters that Krystal's waterpark manager and friend, Ernie and his wife, Bets, seem too good to be true. They are genuinely nice people and the only ones to rally around Krystal without ulterior motives.
And yet, by the end of episode 2, Krystal is OK with selling them down the river because that is what her circumstances have led her to. 'On Becoming God in Central Florida' pointedly zeroes in to the fact that there are no winners in the FAM family except the ones who hustle others.
The first two episodes of ''On Becoming God in Central Florida' were released by Showtime as 'free sampling' of the upcoming series on its YouTube channel. The series officially premieres on Sunday, August 25.