Television

Pyramid Power

On Becoming a God is a loopy, atmospheric satire of multilevel marketing schemes starring Kirsten Dunst.

Kirsten Dunst, as Krystal Stubbs, dances by a pool at the water park in the show.
Kirsten Dunst in On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
Showtime

Kirsten Dunst. In head-to-toe acid-wash denim and braces. Trying to make money off a multilevel marketing company. For a broad swath of the under-40 populace, I suspect those three descriptors are reason enough to tune into Showtime’s new black comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Despite Dunst’s seeming aversion to the mainstream in recent years, the actress remains a generational touchstone for many millennial women—a demo whose members are increasingly finding themselves or their loved ones drained and discarded by MLM vampires like Herbalife and Amway.

But like a pyramid scheme, On Becoming a God, created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, isn’t quite what it’s sold to be. Set in Orlando in the early ’90s, the pilot sets up Dunst’s water park employee Krystal Stubbs, a former pageant queen with barely suppressed rage, as either the most fearsome foe or the most successful salesperson that Founders American Merchandise, or FAM, has ever seen. After the self-helpy organization drives her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) into an early grave (the details of how that happens are too outlandish to spoil here), Krystal searches for a way to scam the scammers, if only to maintain a roof over her baby daughter’s head. (At one point, things get so desperate that the repo woman, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, comes for Krystal’s orthodontic gear.) On Becoming a God is a dead-on satire of a particular kind of MLM: the fascistic positivity, the studied wholesomeness, the tendency to exploit and destroy community ties, and especially the relentless victim-blaming when participants’ wildest financial dreams don’t come true. Despite its bombastic title, the show doesn’t make Krystal an Erin Brockovich or a Walter White—she’s a newbie, not a prodigy. Loopy, winding, and heavily atmospheric, this tropical noir finds just the right balance between social critique and Lynchian dreaminess.

Playing Krystal, who spends much of the 10-part season banging her head against the heavily fortified FAM tower searching for a shortcut to the top, Dunst is a vision of surly determination in a pitch-perfect performance. She’s also surrounded by an outrageously talented cast. Mel Rodriguez, typecast but impeccable as Ernie, Krystal’s married and hopelessly smitten water park boss, becomes her first and easiest mark. An unrecognizable Beth Ditto plays Ernie’s wife, who feels her husband pulling away even before he starts devoting all of his free time to recruiting more FAM members on Krystal’s behalf. (The enlistees that the Spanish-speaking Ernie finds in Orlando’s vulnerable Latinx community parallel the inroads MLM companies are making into real-life Latinx populaces—just one of the many examples of the writers’ thorough research.) But the show spends too much time building up the mystery behind FAM’s peacocking, cream-clad founder, Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). By turns taunting and seductive, his baritone, heard mostly in voice-over on fantasy-spinning tapes his followers are forced to purchase, stifles the proceedings even more heavily than the Caribbean humidity.

But the real revelation is relative newcomer Théodore Pellerin, whose baby-faced Cody Bonar is an aggressively charmless true believer. When emergency responders arrive at the scene of Travis’ death, Cody, his upline—MLM-speak for the person one supply chain level above—seems to parrot one of Obie’s tapes when he tells a police officer, “I don’t have friends. I have business partners.” Eventually, the truth spills out: “But he was my best business partner.” Too disappointed by her husband’s self-deceptions and their ruinous consequences to miss him, Krystal quickly moves on, finding a new love interest she’s sure she can control with a well-turned eyebrow raise. And it doesn’t hurt that the romance complies with FAM’s demands that its high-ranking members engage in compulsory heterosexual bliss.

Krystal lacks the finesse for both sales and whistleblowing, and her obsession with her pet scheme, combined with the burgeoning cast of characters, makes the show eventually feel a bit meandering, if also pleasantly unpredictable. The frumpy, era-specific costumes (some of which Dunst wears more than once) and faux-inspirational, mall-appropriate soundtrack add tremendously to the backwater world-building, but the series also flirts with blue-collar minstrelsy. It’s enormously empathetic toward Krystal’s struggles, but rarely feels of her milieu. Still, its timeliness makes On Becoming a God feel like a show we’ve been waiting for. That it manages to subvert our expectations at the same time is a bonus.