Currently airing Sunday nights on Showtime, On Becoming A God in Central Florida has all the makings of a late-summer breakout hit. It boasts an exciting premise: Krystal Stubbs, a waterpark employee in 90s-era Florida, is forced to assume her husband’s duties working for a pyramid scheme, only to find herself increasingly drawn into the lifestyle it promises her. It features a bravura lead performance by the ever-welcome Kirsten Dunst, and an absurdist, almost Coen Brothers-esque tone to balance out its more devastating moments. The show has been a long time coming, first being set up at AMC under George Clooney’s production company with Yorgos Lanthimos set to direct. The series later moved to Youtube Premium, before finally landing at Showtime with the creative assistance of Charlie McDowell (The One I Love). The show premiered last month to strong reviews, but it’s still too early in its run to tell if it will become a sleeper hit or an underrated gem. Judging from the first few episodes, it has the potential to become one of the best shows on television. Here are some of the reasons we think On Becoming A God in Central Florida could ascend to the top of the Peak TV landscape.
Let’s be crystal clear here (forgive the pun) — the main reason to watch On Becoming A God in Central Florida is Kirsten Dunst’s fantastic turn as Krystal. Recent weeks have seen an impromptu cultural lovefest for the now-veteran actress, not only for her performance here, but also in response to her recent comments about not feeling recognized by her peers in terms of awards and acclaim. If her work in the first few episodes of Central Florida is any indication, she might need to start clearing off some shelf space next to her Cannes Best Actress award (where her stolen Golden Globe for Fargo ought to be). Krystal is a rich role for Dunst. She is at turns both hysterical and terrifying, often at the same time. The most fascinating part of Dunst’s portrayal is watching her negotiate just how far down the rabbit hole Krystal is willing to go. It’s easy to think of Krystal’s newly assumed role as a powerful pyramid scheme runner to be a major transformation for the easy-going mom, but Dunst hints that this may not be a transformation at all — that razor-sharp, calculated nature might have been residing in Krystal all along.
On Becoming A God in Central Florida is one of the most unique shows on television, but it does share DNA with some other great TV dramas. There’s a hint of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul in there. It’s possible to imagine a version of this show where Krystal could go full Walter White, and Saul Goodman would fit right into this humid, panicky world of shady dealings and desperate businessmen. But it's some of Showtime's other series that come to mind most strongly. Put Weeds, SMILF, and maybe even a little bit of Dexter in a blender, and you get something akin to On Becoming A God in Central Florida. Both Central Florida and SMILF concern themselves with the plight of lower-class single mothers getting by using whatever means necessary. In terms of shows like Weeds and Dexter, so many of the best Showtime series deal with underlying darkness in the sunniest of places. From the cul-de-sacs of Agrestic to one of the most bloody depictions of Miami on TV, Weeds and Dexter found so much narrative power in using their bright, “nothing-to-see-here” locations as juxtaposition to some of the most criminal human behavior.
The fashion in On Becoming A God in Central Florida so perfectly represents its period that it feels like stepping into a very bright, sometimes very gaudy, time machine. Krystal Stubbs rocks some of the best 90s fashion trends, including high waisted jeans (sometimes paired with a denim jacket), blinged-out bathing suit tops, and blown out hair. In episode three, she wears an amazing floral printed jacket and skirt set that rivals Fleabag’s jumpsuit as one of the very best TV fashion moments of 2019.
The show's producers have surrounded Dunst with a great supporting cast. The first episode of Central Florida stages a Melancholia reunion between Dunst’s Krystal and her husband Travis, played by Emmy winner Alexander Skarsgard. To give away how Krystal winds up assuming his pyramid scheming would be a major disservice to anyone planning to watch the show, but let’s just say it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and pathetic, as so many of the antics on the show are. She winds up having to work alongside Travis’s slimy business partner Cody, played by Boy Erased’s Theodore Pellerin, who unexpectedly becomes a sort of co-lead. As Krystal’s well-meaning co-worker, Mel Rodriguez finds new layers in the lovable sad sack-type he perfected on the underrated Getting On. (In a splendid piece of out-of-left-field casting, rock singer Beth Ditto makes her major acting debut as his wife Bets.) Dexter’s Julie Benz is welcomed back into the Showtime family as Krystal’s well-to-do neighbor, and Ted Levine looms over the proceedings as the mustache-twirling Obie Garboe, the head of Founders American Merchandise.
Underneath all of its alligator-skinning and puppet-dancing, On Becoming A God in Central Florida is ultimately about people trying their best to survive by whatever means possible. Watching Krystal & Co. attempting to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty and into the American Dream that has been dangled in front of their faces feels eerily relevant today, even if the series takes place in 90s Florida, highlighting just how little the needle has moved in this country.
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Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik