Ah, Florida. The birthplace of Gatorade, air conditioning, and key lime pie. I spent the first 18 years of my life on Central Florida’s Gulf Coast, and now — over a decade removed from taking my first one-way plane ticket out of Tampa International Airport for college — I still find myself missing that swampy home of mine at the strangest moments. Maybe it’s when I’m watching a movie set in the South, and I’ll stare longingly at the Spanish moss floating off the branches of an ancient oak tree. Perhaps it’s when I hear a good old-fashioned Floridian twang or a thick Cuban accent. Or when I bond with a stranger because our numbers share an 813 area code, the sign of a kindred spirit who understands that the Sunshine State is still a part of us no matter where life takes us.
Those flashes of nostalgia struck again when I was watching Showtime’s new series On Becoming a God in Central Florida and Pop TV’s Florida Girls. The first is a dark comedy, set in 1992, about a determined young widow named Krystal (Kirsten Dunst, also an executive producer) who takes up her late husband’s fledgling Amway-inspired business. The second is a much more lighthearted look at four broke friends in Central Florida, who live in a mobile home together, work at a mermaid-themed bar, and party on the beach while trying to improve themselves after their former roommate gets her GED and moves north. The women of these shows aspire to something better than what they were born into. They may end up in comical situations, but they are not the butt of any Florida jokes. In some ways, Krystal reminds me of the women I grew up with, many of whom came to this country with nothing and fought to make sure their kids had the opportunities they didn’t. In the case of Florida Girls, I was reminded of old high-school classmates who didn’t understand why I signed up for community college courses and participated in as many clubs and activities as I could: I wanted to get the hell out of Florida. I was that roommate who got away.
Within the last decade or so since I left Florida, there’s been a shift in the way my state has been shown onscreen. I grew up watching TV shows and movies that treated Florida like a novelty. In the ’90s, it was usually the destination of a very special episode, like when the Tanners went to Disney World on Full House (or when any number of other ABC sitcom families got their own “Disney episodes”). When it was the setting, shows like Golden Girls barely engaged with the Florida outside their home. Films like Miami Vice and the 1983 remake of Scarface showed off the darker side of the Sunshine State. My hometown of Tampa even made a brief cameo in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, when two of the movie’s main gangsters take a target to the zoo’s lion exhibit to intimidate him. However entertaining, that’s not the Florida of most locals.
Even simple steps like setting a show’s narrative in Florida feel like leaps and bounds from only hearing about my state in punchlines. Instead of approaching characters like a gawking tourist might, On Becoming a God in Central Florida and Florida Girls shine an empathetic light on their characters’ struggles with poverty and attempts to get ahead. They also capture a kind of restless spirit that I’ve previously only seen in the independent movies of Florida-born filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine). In these movies, crime, guilt, and desperation come to a boil under an almost suffocating need to escape mundanity and humidity-induced malaise. One visitor’s escapism is another person’s reason to escape.
It’s a shame neither Florida Girls nor On Becoming a God in Central Florida are actually filmed in the state, but we have Florida politics and the lack of film tax credits to thank for that. Set in a vague Orlando-adjacent city, On Becoming a God in Central Florida captures a sense of the less-than-magical experience of working in one of the state’s many theme parks. Tourism is the state’s largest industry, but theme-park stories are often told from the perspective of visitors, not the (likely disgruntled) soul working under the Florida sun for minimum wage. In some Becoming a God scenes, the visible sweat on the actors brings to mind the soaked-shirt performances of William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, minus the sexual tension. Both shows accurately depict the Floridian wardrobe of shorts, pastels, neon colors, and using bathing suits as undergarments whether or not you’re headed to the beach or a pool.
Florida Girls takes the Florida jokes to the next level and revels in the minutiae of the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater area. The show features scenes in such famous locations as the airport Marriott and one of our many malls, plus jokes about seeing athletes at the local Cheesecake Factory (it’s not far from Raymond James Stadium and the spot where the Yankees spring train), and even a story about teenagers sneaking into Club Prana in Ybor City, which I also tried (and failed) to do at that age. The audacity of putting such weirdly specific references to things only locals — who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles — would recognize feels almost rebellious, like sending out a secret code only those of us with 813 and 727 phone numbers could understand. It’s the recognition of a coastal audience that’s not always elite.
Although the two shows follow characters either in or on the edge of financial ruin, their adventures put them in contact with other Floridians outside their immediate circles — a reminder that the Sunshine State is not a monolithic place full of only gator-wrestling Florida Men and fraudster-turned-Senator Rick Scott. It’s a place where some of the richest people own homes not far from our neediest communities, and contrary to most popular media narratives about the state, its citizens are not exclusively white. In one episode of Florida Girls, one of the friends calls up a wealthy Cuban-American classmate for access to her boat, and the group is in awe of the classmate’s McMansion-style home and luxurious amenities. Shelby is biracial, and the topic comes up in nuanced conversations with her black mother (Kym Whitley) and roommate Jayla (Laci Mosley). In On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Krystal meets some of Florida’s upper-crust old families, conservative politicians trawling for donations, and a number of folks pretending to have money when they don’t. There’s also a subplot about the show’s pyramid scheme targeting the Latino community, much like Herbalife. Expanding beyond the shows’ core characters allows us to see more of the Florida that’s often left out of old movies and TV shows. However, in a state where 26 percent of the population identifies as Latino, there’s only one supporting character in the two shows who’s Latina, and she’s a drug-addicted journalist in On Becoming a God in Central Florida. On that front, there’s still progress to be made.
Florida is a complicated place, and there are still many stories to be told from up, down, and off of I-4 — be it from tourist attractions, cookie-cutter subdivisions, revived city centers, or still untamed rural lands. The characters of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a drama about people living on the margins of the Happiest Place on Earth, live not too far from the subjects of Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a documentary about the chaotic family building one of the most ostentatious homes in the state. Criminals and scammers enjoy the limelight on shows like Claws, Dexter, and Bloodline, as do the party-minded rascals in Harmony Korine’s movies Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum. In the past decade, Floridians celebrated the mainstream success of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and how it introduced the world to Miami’s Liberty City through the moving story of a young man’s life. I laughed loudly whenever the “Ladies of Tampa” were addressed in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, and I cried through much of Ramin Bahrani’s brutal drama about the housing crisis, 99 Homes, because I knew so many families displaced by the 2008 crash — mine included.
Like the recent spate of Florida-set movies and TV shows, On Becoming a God in Central Florida and Florida Girls transport me back into my rose-colored memories of watching dolphins swim along Bayshore Boulevard, how my family would take weekend trips to swim in the warm waters of the gulf, and how Florida-resident discounts made theme-park visits a regular fixture in my childhood. Parts of my hometown have changed in my absence, but all it takes is a good Florida story to take me back to a time when I climbed the tree downed by Hurricane Andrew in my grandparents’ backyard or caught lizards so my third-grade teacher would wear them as earrings to make the class laugh. But more than just appealing to my personal interests in all things Florida, shows like On Becoming a God in Central Florida and Florida Girls are wildly original stories from uncommon corners of the U.S. Given the shows’ mix of weirdos, outsiders, heat, rivers, and water parks, these stories could only emerge from the swamps of the Sunshine State. We are richer for visiting characters and places outside of the standard tourist traps.