Kirsten Dunst in On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
Kirsten Dunst in On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Patti Perret/Sony/SHOWTIME
There are a lot of things to like in On Becoming a God in Central Florida, although I doubt any two people are going to like exactly the same things about it. In its best moments, On Becoming a God hits upon a worthy blend of comedy, humanism, and bug-nuts surreality that’s unlike anything else on TV. Unfortunately, it also has qualities that are like a lot of things on TV—namely, that it burns through the promise of its early episodes too quickly, and becomes a repetitive churn without enough of a build.

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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.

Mel Rodriguez and Beth Ditto.
Mel Rodriguez and Beth Ditto. Patti Perret/Sony/SHOWTIME
At the start of On Becoming a God, Krystal’s married to Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), a struggling schmuck who’s deeply embroiled in an Amway-like pyramid scheme called FAM. Travis attempts, in vain, to recruit new suckers into the fold and desperately tries to unload the cartons of household goods he’s bought as part of the program. There’s a lot to say about multi-level marketing scams these days, particularly the ones that are as cult-y and all-encompassing as FAM—read up on Herbalife, and take a quick look at the family behind Amway and compare that last name with our current Secretary of Education—and for that, On Becoming a God keeps excitingly close to the fire, despite being a period piece. But most of the cultural commentary evaporates over the course of the season, as FAM becomes an otherworldly rabbit hole for the show’s surreal digressions and unlikely plot twists.

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.

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Théodore Pellerin and Kirsten Dunst.
Théodore Pellerin and Kirsten Dunst. Patti Perret/Sony/SHOWTIME
I didn’t respond well to the show’s other primary character, though: the smarmy huckster Cody, played by 22-year-old Théodore Pellerin. Cody is Travis’ superior in the FAM chain (they call them “uplines”), and the Canadian actor’s youth just seemed to me to be utterly discordant with the character. Pellerin has a lot to work with in Cody—and the role grows bigger throughout the season—but I just couldn’t buy this kid as someone any grown-up would look up to or even listen to. There’s a reason why Cody seems so callow that’s not revealed until late in the season (and I think the character is designed to show how hollow the FAM enterprise is), but the show never fully addresses his youth head-on, and I couldn’t buy that the other characters wouldn’t address it either. Nevertheless, a lot of the reviews for On Becoming a God identify Pellerin as a standout, so your mileage may vary.

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.

On Becoming a God in Central Florida premieres Sunday, August 25 on Showtime, but you can check out the first two episodes—here and here—for free on YouTube right now.

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