TV Review: Kirsten Dunst Gives a Devine Performance in ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’

Some performers you can follow in to any type of project. Kirsten Dunst rarely gets the level of credit she deserves for making smart, unpredictable choices in her career. Showtime’s latest dark comedy, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” feels like one of her strangest roles to date. The ten-episode series casts Dunst as a minimum wage water park employee who must thrive in a pyramid scheme after her husband’s untimely death. The show’s fun premise wears thin thanks to overlong episodes and twists and turns that become convoluted. But Dunst leads an ensemble that crafts a strong tone that’s hard to resist.

Krystal Stubbs (Dunst) never intended to be the sole breadwinner for her family. As a lowly water park employee in 1992 Florida, it’s hard to provide for a family on minimum wage earnings alone. However, her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgard), lets his big dreams get the better of him. He becomes embroiled in Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a pyramid scheme that convinces him to quit his job and invest his entire life savings in the organization. Unfortunately, a night out with his FAM upline supplier, Cody (Theodore Pellerin), leads Travis straight into the belly of an alligator after his car ends up in a swamp. In death, Travis leaves Krystal nothing more than a mountain of FAM products and an even greater mountain of debt. Leaving Krystal is forced to work within the FAM system in order to provide for her family.

Kirsten Dunst has long proven that she’s a God in more places than just Central Florida. In over twenty-five years of acting, she has given expert performances in a myriad of genres. Trying to narrow down a top ten list of favorite Kirsten Dunst performances proves harder than one might expect. Her role as Krystal Stubbs makes a convincing argument to join those ranks. Dunst’s take on a rural housewife that’s constantly underestimated by everyone but herself recalls her Emmy-nominated work in “Fargo” on FX. The one key difference between those characters is the level of malice. Krystal never intends for violence or takes action out of malice. Instead, every decision comes from an innate need to survive. As much as she hates FAM, Krystal knows she’s chained to the pyramid scheme if she has any hopes of staying financially afloat.

Krystal’s guile and shamelessness leads her straight to her next-door neighbor and manager, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez). She sells him into the FAM scheme in her quest to get the products off-loaded through the water park. Krystal’s plan works to a degree, as the park becomes overrun with devotees of FAM. Unfortunately, Ernie drinks too much of the Kool-Aid, which causes irreparable damage to his family and finances. Rodriguez and Beth Ditto, who plays Ernie’s wife, Bets, do a fantastic job with this subplot. The show walks a fine line between empathizing and mocking the couple whose idea of fancy is a night out at Olive Garden. Yet, the actors make the characters likable and their marriage textured. It’s always a joy when the narrative loops back around to their lives.

The show still feels less about the lives ruined by these fad scams and more about the scam. Once Krystal successfully gets FAM into the parks and her “downstream” into her Splashersize class (don’t ask), FAM headquarters shuts her down. Krystal enlists Cody to journey to corporate to speak with FAM’s leader, Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), the real life Wizard of Oz. Even though Krystal can easily spot the fraud behind the curtain, Garbeau’s followers (Cody included) can’t help but blindly give themselves over to the Garbeau system. People are so desperate for wealth, they’ll believe anyone who says they can help them achieve that goal. There’s a Lynch-ian quality to Levine’s performance as Obie, which oscillates between menacing and intimidating to comical and odd.

Even with great performances, our trips into the Garbeau system feel like an extended detour. Everything feels straight out of the goofier Roger Moore Bond films. The show becomes obsessed with placing Krystal in odd rooms with floating orbs or introducing us to more sad-sack FAM devotees. As Krystal and Obie trade having the upper-hand, we miss some of the great character dynamics that were set-up early on. Pellerin’s Cody serves as a great example of a Garbeau parishioner that, no matter how bad things get, always turns to his trusty belief system with FAM. His nervous energy works well up against Krystal’s no-bullshit attitude. This dynamic becomes way more interesting than over-plotted episodes set in these cult-like facilities.

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” feels different than most shows on TV. The only element more peculiar than its characters are the situations in which they find themselves. Still, Kirsten Dunst brings the show together and makes it a real event to watch. The disparate qualities all converge around Dunst’s Krystal and she manages to sell us on every twist and turn the show takes us on.

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” premieres on Showtime on Sunday, August 25th.

GRADE: (★)

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