On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a captivating and outlandish look at the human condition.
The series has had a long ride from script to screen. After getting passed over by AMC and YouTube Premium, the series, created and executive produced by newcomers Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky will air on Showtime beginning Sunday, August 25.
It's hard to imagine what the show might have looked like two incarnations ago, but the result is an imaginative, thoughtful show that, while very funny, is also unexpectedly heartfelt.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Krystal Stubbs, a young mother and wife in an Orlando-adjacent town. The year is 1992. Krystal has dreams and ambitions, but she has no time to put them into action caring for her daughter Destinee and with her job at the local waterpark.
But she's content with her lot in life as long as they have a roof over their heads and can afford the odd night out with friends. Her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), though, isn't so content, and he's intent on living the American dream.
Travis has an almost insane desire to become a rockstar businessman by way of Founders American Merchandise, or FAM for short. The group promises a life of leisure and a huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as long as you follow the FAM steps to success.
FAM is a multi-level marketing scheme (that sounds a lot like Amway) appealing to the unsuspecting hoping to work for themselves, set their own hours, and make a million dollars.
Travis is a follower of the Garbeau System of FAM founded by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). The Garbeau System is nothing more than a series of self-promotional seminars and cassette tapes encouraging acolytes to spend, spend, spend their way to success.
The key to that success is in monetizing your relationships by corralling family and friends into your circle. They can do that by becoming salesmen themselves or by buying copious amounts of less-than-quality products to keep the dream alive and push you to the next level.
When it inevitably all falls apart, Krystal is left holding the bag, and she's not as gullible as her husband.
That sets Krystal on a journey to free the family from FAM by immersing herself into the "business" just enough that she can pull out of it without losing everything they've worked so hard to achieve.
It's quite admirable that On Becoming a God in Central Florida plays for laughs the bizarre notion of pyramid scheme business and all of their cultish shenanigans without ever making a mockery of those who fall into the trap.
At the core, most of the people who get involved with such schemes are hardworking and earnest in their desire to make FAM (or Amway) work.
They're not trying to escape hard work but rather to capitalize on it. Then they can achieve more for themselves than their bosses are willing to recognize on their behalf.
Using those qualities to build the characters of On Becoming a God in Central Florida allows viewers to create an emotional connection with them.
Dunst shines as Krystal, a former beauty pageant with a winning smile who mistakenly targeted as an easy takedown. Her take-no-prisoners "go-getter" attitude proves she's a formidable opponent even for the well-established FAM czar, Obie Gereau II himself.
Théodore Pellerin is terrific as Cody, Travis' fully-FAM mentor, and his rivalry a FAM competitor, which includes long talks while slipping blue slurpies, is one of the series' highlights.
Monetizing family and friends is a key component of FAM-style systems, and that puts couple Ernie (Mel Rodriguez) and Bets (Beth Ditto) right in the Stubbs' crosshairs despite their otherwise cozy relationship.
Watching Ernie succumb to the pressure of the sales pitch after trying so hard to steer clear of it is almost heartbreaking, but he's never made out to be a sucker.
One of the driving forces of the storyline is that operating outside the Garbeau System is not only ineffectual but frowned upon because of its implications to Garbeau and his wife Louise (Sharon Lawrence).
Threatening their prominence at the top of the pyramid won't do. Still, it doesn't stop Krystal from attempting to outmaneuver Garbeau at every turn, nor does it stop Ernie from finding an untapped market of potential in his Latinx friends by creating a series of tapes of his own.
The series takes full advantage of market lingo as FAM members look out for "stinker thinkers" (think suppressive person from Scientology) while trying to increase their downline to better serve their upline. They also get to attend hilarious conventions like the Wham Bam Thank You FAM featured event.
Garbeau is both godlike and mysterious to his downline. He leaves his version of inspirational messages on answering machines with a mechanical voice overriding the FAM member's name to give it a personal touch and takes to arriving via helicopter without notice to enchant them.
From alligator attacks to return-to-the-womb experiences to a nod to Dunst's role in Drop Dead Gorgeous, there is a little something for everyone in this Showtime series.
And through it all, the most important thing to Krystal is Destinee. On Becoming a God in Central Florida never loses touch with the fact that Krystal is a mother whose daughter is her number one priority.
That doesn't mean she doesn't make some ill-advised decisions regarding Destinee's care, but every action is a direct result of her desire to provide for her baby daughter.
I went into the show with no expectations other than my appreciation of Dunst as an actress. Not only does she live up and possibly surpass her past work, but it's one of the year's best performances.
There isn't a word or a gesture misplaced, and that's not easy to accomplish with a baby on your hip and a pair of braces on your teeth.
The rest of the cast is just as adept at capturing the essence of their characters in a time period permeated by gawky clothes and hairstyles without a whiff of the technology we rely on today.
Setting the series in 1992 not only plays into the Amway madness of the time (I was personally approached twice in that year to sell Amway -- no kidding), but it's a reminder that no matter how much things change, they always stay the same.
Without the internet or cell phones, it seems easier to fall prey to scams and cults. Having those things, though, has only made targets hoping to work at home or get rich quick more accessible.
Even with all the information available at our fingertips, people still press their luck fully believing that the key to happiness is more money.
Watching will surely touch you if you've ever struggled to make ends meet or considered biting into a get-rich-quick strategy to roll the dice with your future. But it's the well-developed and layered characters who keep you watching while they otherwise wander into absurd territory.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida premieres on Showtime Sunday, August 25 at 9/8c.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.