“You have a fearsome energy,” Krystal Stubbs is told midway through On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Showtime’s new comedy about American dreams and delusions. It’s meant as shameless flattery, but it’s also an accurate description of both Krystal and the superb performance that Kirsten Dunst provides in the role — by far the greatest delight in an otherwise uneven and sluggishly-paced series.
When we meet Krystal, she is a harried former beauty queen juggling her marriage to insurance salesman Travis (a mulleted Alexander Skarsgard), care of their baby daughter Destinee, and a job at the off-brand local water park. It’s not an easy life, nor a glamorous one (she’s introduced wearing orthodontic braces and tacky clothes). But she’s far more content with it than Travis, who has fallen under the spell of an Amway-like pyramid scheme called FAM, and is devoting most of his waking hours, and even the family savings, to a quest to obtain the luxurious life he believes he’s owed. And when Travis gets in too deep, it’s up to Krystal to save herself and the family, at any cost.
Earlier in her career, Dunst would surely have played one of the goggle-eyed FAM zombies, like Travis’ creepy young mentor Cody (Théodore Pellerin), who always seems to be lurking about with a cookie cake or some vapid motivational catchphrases. But On Becoming a God, created by Matt Lutsky and Robert Funke, turns Dunst’s innate sunniness on its head. Yes, Krystal knows how to flash a pageant smile when it’s called for, but she’s also far from the sucker that Travis, Cody, and everyone else takes her for.
An exhausted Travis argues that it’s a great thing for the marriage that his FAM work makes him too tired for sex, lamely insisting, “You should be begging me not to get hard!” Krystal coldly dismembers him with three words: “I. Don’t. Beg.” And whenever Cody turns up, naively convinced that this will be the day that the obvious genius of FAM and its founder Obie Garbeau (Ted Levine) will become clear to Krystal, she fires a withering gaze at him that would be licensed as a deadly weapon in several states. She does not have time for any of his bullshit, but circumstances force her to grapple with it, anyway.
It’s one of the best performances Dunst’s ever given, verbally, physically, and emotionally. Krystal’s personality is all sharp edges, in contrast to the post-pregnancy voluptuousness that she uses as a weapon of last resort. And though she makes plenty of mistakes in trying to extricate herself from FAM’s clutches — get ready for another prestige cable show where each solution creates three new problems, and an inconvenient corpse or two may have to be creatively disposed of — there’s a fierce intelligence that’s palpable to the audience, even when Krystal’s playing dumb for the many men (and a few women) who have unfair control of her future.
At first, On Becoming a God is strange and funny enough to merit a leading turn as good as Dunst’s. The world of FAM is so bizarre when viewed from any rational perspective, and supporting players like Pellerin and Levine (sporting a mustache so impressively thick and unruly, Sam Elliott might feel insecure looking at it) add the necessary color and energy required to make it plausible that someone like Travis, or like Krystal’s friend Ernie (a terrific Mel Rodriguez), could fall so easily under its spell. There are acts of shocking violence against both man and beast, and surreal tableaux that could occur only in an adventure in the titular state of the union. And the show makes some strong satirical points early on about the lies we are conditioned to tell ourselves in order to pursue the fortunes to which we are allegedly entitled.
But the creative team soon runs out of new things to say about FAM, and about most of these characters. There’s some entertaining interplay between Krystal and Cody, and the way she learns to use all of her powers against him. But what you see in the first few episodes is mostly what you get throughout the season. And suddenly it is a lot of time being spent in the company of these bumbling zealots and their ridiculous jargon. There are enough ideas and jokes to fill the two-hour screenplay that it feels like On Becoming must have begun life as. But the season runs seven and a half hours in total (each episode hovers close to 45 minutes), and eventually becomes as exhausting to sit through as Krystal finds Cody. Her contempt for the whole enterprise, and the verve of Dunst’s performance, cut through some of this unpleasant cult’s inanity, just not enough. There’s a scene of black-comic gore in the premiere that’s hilarious for its surprise; by the time the finale strikes a similar note, the show feels too labored for anything to be funny.
It’s a great title, though, and one hell of a star turn from Dunst — an inversion of the kinds of enthusiastic women she’s played in everything from Bring It On to Fargo, but also a natural progression. You put up with enough nonsense in this life, and eventually you may become just as ruthless as Krystal Stubbs surprises everyone by being.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida debuts August 25th. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.