To be American is to hear a nagging voice in your head asking when you’ll be a success. That voice is figurative for most people, but for some of the characters in Showtime’s early-’90s satirical drama On Becoming a God in Central Florida — a star vehicle for Kirsten Dunst, who also executive-produced — it’s an actual voice belonging to a man named Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). Obie is the leader of Founders American Merchandise, a.k.a. FAM, a pyramid scheme à la Amway or Mary Kay. FAM sells an array of consumer products, everything from nonperishable food to giant bottles of hand lotion, to its members, who then turn around and resell it to other people, often while trying to recruit those same people to join FAM and buy and sell things, forever and ever, amen.
FAM is a cult or a religion that doesn’t label itself as such. The pursuit of success forms the core of its faith, and Obie — a onetime prison guard — is its charismatic figurehead, spreading the gospel. FAM members listen to Obie’s meandering, deep-voiced sermons via cassette tapes in their cars and on boom boxes, home stereo systems, and Sony Walkmans, and pepper their language with Obie catchphrases like “stinkin’ thinkin’” and “gloomy zoomies.” His voice resonates throughout the show, threading parallel subplots like one of those unifying devices in a panoramic social satire by Robert Altman (Nashville, M*A*S*H), and inspiring certain characters to behave like Evangelists wandering the community seeking out converts. Théodore Pellerin’s Cody, a lanky young “mentor” to other FAM members, listens to Obie constantly and shouts his aphorisms in a hoarse voice to motivate his sales force. Sometimes he gets so excited that he lip-syncs along with Obie and dances to his words.
Dunst’s character, Krystal Stubbs, is a FAM skeptic, but she’s married into the faith. Her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), an insurance agent who sells FAM products on the side, is a wild-eyed true believer who’s convinced that it’s their ticket out of the middle class and into the stratosphere of wealth, where folks like Obie reside. When a bizarre twist of fate ends her marriage — I’m purposefully being vague here, because I don’t want to spoil one of the pilot’s best moments — Krystal struggles to make ends meet, working a dead-end job at a water park while trying to take care of her newborn daughter, and gradually learning that the comfortable, stable lifestyle she believed Travis provided was an illusion hiding massive debt. She blames FAM for her awful predicament, and as she struggles to survive in the wreckage left by Travis’s absence, she plans to destroy the faith of FAM members by telling them how her life was wrecked by Obie’s false gospel and her husband’s belief in it.
But a strange thing happens: As Krystal does what she has to do to eke out a living for herself and care for her daughter, she figures out that she’s good at convincing people to do what she wants and give her their money. The more crafty and ruthless and brazen she is, the more success she has. And at that point, On Becoming a God becomes a study in self-knowledge and delusion, echoing many classic series about money, ethics, and the American self-image, including Big Love, Breaking Bad, Enlightened, and the current Atlanta and Lodge 49.
Created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, and co-produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, this is a swing-for-the-fences series that starts out verging on southern gothic cutesy, but soon finds a more meditative seriocomic groove. The format is flexible enough to allow for long, self-contained scenes that feel like compact mini plays. Two such scenes find Cody in a local diner, confronting a young representative of a rival pyramid scheme who’s wandered into FAM’s “territory” looking to expand its own reach; the fellow is approximately Cody’s age and is so physically similar that they could be brothers, and the overall effect is a bit disorienting, to the point where you half-expect it to end by revealing that the character is either a figment of Cody’s imagination or a Twilight Zone–ish doppelgänger. The second episode ends with an absolute banger of a musical montage juxtaposing three characters in moments of self-discovery, scored to “Everything’s Alright” from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, and throughout, the filmmakers (including Go Fish director Rose Troche, who helmed the pivotal third episode) keep pushing into quasi-musical territory, showing characters singing and dancing for audiences, or only for themselves. (One of Krystal’s many supplemental jobs is as a beauty pageant coach, helping a young teenager work on the talent portion of the contest; she does a dance routine with a couple of marionettes that would have fit right in to Being John Malkovich.)
The latter seem at first like lovely indulgences until you think about how overworked, stressed-out, and often self-punishing these characters are. The semi-religious nature of the FAM meetings, which incorporate call-and-response routines that would fit into a traditional worship service, portray a subculture of Americans who are desperate to transcend the immediate physical reality of their lives, with its financial burdens and repetitious obligations. Everybody wants to get outside of their routine and discover something new and amazing about themselves, and the gospel of success (or just the regular gospel) gives them hope that it’s possible. And even when its practitioners are operating out of self-interest — and even when their disciples suspect as much — everyone believes the hype on some level, or at least enjoys getting swept up in the rush. Dunst unifies the many far-flung aspects of the story, never letting Krystal become a cartoonish white southern caricature, yet at the same time letting us see the frightening ruthless streak that’s usually camouflaged by her desperation.
This series has been a pet project of Dunst’s for years. It was originally set up at YouTube until the streaming platform decided to move away from scripted programming; it seemed like a goner until Showtime rode in and gave it a new home. Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Lobster and The Favourite, was supposed to be involved as a director, which makes a lot of sense considering the series’ mordantly satirical humor, and how much of the story skates along the edge of seeming dreamlike or figurative without telling the audience how literally they’re supposed to take things. The resulting tone is Lanthimos-like, yet considerably warmer and, frankly, more American, looking at society from the inside out rather than the reverse, and treating the characters with warmth and empathy while still making their society seem like the biggest pyramid scheme of them all.