The series was originally planned for YouTube’s slate of original content and is instead airing on Showtime (it premieres this Sunday night), although right now you can check out the first two episodes on YouTube for free. It was also at one point going to be directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster), and my god, wouldn’t that have been something. Maybe that coulda-been gives you an idea of what sort of dark, quirky comedy we’re talking about with On Becoming a God, although it’s marginally less confrontational and significantly nicer than Lanthimos’ work tends to be.
On Becoming a God is set in the early ’90s near Orlando—in the shadow of Disney World—and stars Kirsten Dunst as Krystal, a former pageant winner and current waterpark employee whose wardrobe largely consists of bedazzled denim. Although she’s what many people think of as “white trash,” the show never punches down on her in any way—one of its strong suits. Krystal is a strong, fully realized character who contains multitudes; she’s sunny and smiling when she needs to be, and tough when things don’t go her way. Your personal mileage may have varied with Dunst’s past performances, but I don’t think anyone could argue that she’s pretty terrific here.
The supporting cast is incredibly strong (with one exception that I’ll get to in a minute). The great Mel Rodriguez plays Ernie, Krystal and Travis’ neighbor (and Krystal’s co-worker); he’s a depressed family man who initially resists Travis’ overtures but eventually succumbs to the FAM way of life. This turn is never fully explained, and in the back half of the season, Ernie becomes more and more of a puzzle, even as Rodriguez does excellent work to keep the character grounded. Ernie’s wife Bets is played by Gossip singer (and former Portlander) Beth Ditto, and boy, she’s good. One hopes this is the beginning of a long string of acting credits for Ditto, who’s got huge potential for a dramatic career in film and television. And the immortal Ted Levine plays Obie Garbeau, the head of the FAM community who isn’t that far-off from being a bizarro cult leader. Levin’s weird, fully committed performance is one of the show’s unique strengths.
I had other frustrations with On Becoming a God in Central Florida, and the show has a way of surprising you without exactly wowing you. Most of the episodes have surreal digressions of strangeness that are unlike anything you’ve seen on TV outside of maybe Twin Peaks, but they’re accompanied by a lot of busy-work plotting that contains almost no sense of escalation or character development. Still, that Dunst performance is really something, and the show never turns outright bad—and the oddball flourishes really stick with you, like the FAM heavy who skulks around barefoot, or the bathtub full of clear plastic balls that’s meant to replicate being in the womb. I couldn’t fully commit to On Becoming a God, but maybe—like any other pyramid scheme—my lack of commitment was why I didn’t reap its full benefits. You’re bound to find something you like in it, and with the first two episodes available for free without a Showtime subscription, there’s little risk in trying it out. After all, it’s not Amway.