Arts, Television, Review

‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’ Skewers Capitalism

The American Dream is the American ideal: Through hard work and unrelenting dedication, success and prosperity will come to fruition. It’s this ideal that continues to drive immigrants to the United States, and inspires those born into low-income families. The promise of fair opportunity, financial prosperity, and freedom is enticing enough—but the chance of quickly rising in status by earning massive amounts of money through clandestine operations proves more enticing for some. In the 10-episode dark-comedy television series On Becoming a God in Central Florida, executive produced by and starring Kirsten Dunst as Krystal Stubbs characters encounter the dark side of capitalism.  

Set in the early ’90s in a Florida town remiss of all the amusements and attractions of present-day Orlando, the traditional notion of the American Dream is exploited and used as a proxy to the ponzi scheme run by Founders American Merchandise (FAM). The details of FAM are left unclear to the audience—putting viewers in a position similar to that of its deceived investors. But there’s a large emphasis on FAM being a community, a system that accrues not employees, but “independent owners” who work for themselves. Their job is to encourage more people to convert to the system, and to buy and pedal FAM products, which are an assortment of home good items and food supplies. It’s a never-ending cycle of buying and selling.  

Families are roped in, lured by the empty promises that founder Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) preaches. “Dream a big dream,” he croons in his Garbeau Systems training tape volume 2,063—an item which simultaneously placates its listeners and profits off them. In the eyes of the FAM community, Obie is equivalent to their god, or at the very least a messiah, because of what he represents: money, power, and total freedom. These entities are highly revered yet unattainable, impossible to achieve even within the system. Those who fall victim to his words become readily available followers, and those who view the system with skepticism are dubbed “Stinker Thinkers.” 

For husband Travis Stubbs (Alexander Skarsgård), this “Big Dream” equates to a mansion, a helicopter, and a yacht. And these dreams appear deceptively close to his reality. He has been working his day-job, or J.O.B.  (a FAM acronym that stands for “Just Over Broke” or “Jerks on Board”), and recruiting for FAM for over two years, yet his dedication and hardwork have returned meager rewards—if any.  

Skarsgård physically transforms into Stubbs: He hunches his shoulders, slouches over his work desk, and when he’s not listening to the tapes, he’s muttering them word-for-word to himself, eyes darting back and forth in a desperate attempt to stay awake. To audiences, he truly lives and breathes the words of Obie, too overworked to question why he’s so committed to FAM.  Stubbs is a victim of FAM’s system, a system that runs its followers into the ground preaching that the “go-getters go get” and that their efforts will be rewarded. But it is also a system that relies on a unit: a Founders Man and a Founders Woman.

Enter Krystal Stubbs, a Rebel Rapids water park employee, former Miss Zuber pageant winner, and a wife and mother who has her own suspicions about FAM, who is remarkably played by Dunst. Her performance as Krystal is one that wields depth and unrelenting determination to her character, as Krystal dives deeper into the corrupt scheme. Despite her outward appearance (braces, purple eyeshadow, and Rebel Rapids uniform of denim cutoffs and a faded yellow t-shirt), she exudes power and is skilled in subtle coercion, skills which boost her rise in the FAM ranks. 

Though Dunst’s character’s total plunge into the delinquencies of the FAM system could sway viewers’ opinions of her character, the fact that she is a mother caring for her new baby provides substantial reasoning for her decision. Her motivations and past are also revealed when she says, “I won’t be poor again”—a line delivered to Skarsgård’s Travis definitively.

As much as the show’s central plot is focused on FAM and the relentless pursuit of wealth, underlying themes highlight the lower-middle-class experience. The show also offers subtle commentary on gender roles: Men make degrading comments about Krystal, and FAM diminishes women to a supporting role.

To be a “Founders Woman” means to be supportive and available—a “Founders Woman” is a cheerleader for her husband. For two years, Krystal was committed to FAM simply because her husband was, and when she is forced to assume the role her husband upheld in FAM, she decides to finally take what her family was promised all along.

Featured Image by Showtime

August 28, 2019