The first episode of Showtime’s new series sets up a dark comedy that satirizes pyramid schemes & hustle culture.
We’ve all encountered one of them online. The high school classmate, or former co-worker from more than a decade ago, that you forgot you were Facebook “friends” with, announces, either publicly or through DM, that they’ve “taken charge” of their life. They’re tired of the 9 to 5 grind, when they’d rather be in business for themselves, making pure profit. Bottomless wealth and success will come, somehow, from these “brand ambassadors” selling cheap cotton leggings, or mascara. Sometimes it’s something a little more questionable, like essential oils that promise to cure everything from depression to migraines, or “skinny tea,” which has the same effect on one’s body as taking a laxative.
None of this stuff comes cheap, and it never stops at buying just one item. The job of the “brand ambassador” is to not just keep pushing their customers to order more products, but to eventually become “brand ambassadors” themselves. You might call it a “pyramid scheme,” but they’ll protest — it’s a business opportunity, and one where success is all but guaranteed, as long as you never stop selling. Showtime’s new series On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a funny but unsettling satire about the cultishness of pyramid schemes, and how they prey on sad, lonely people with dreams bigger than they can ever afford.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Krystal Stubbs, a former beauty queen who’s now, despite being in her mid-thirties, stuck working in a water park. Things are so tough for Krystal that she often has to bring her infant daughter to work with her, taking breaks to feed her in the park’s dimly lit, cruddy locker room. There’s no money, because it all goes into Founders American Merchandise (or FAM), a combination of Amway and “The Secret,” with a touch of Scientology. Krystal’s husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgard) is a devotee of FAM, and its mysterious “Garbeau System,” a series of motivational, half-bullying/half-inspiring speeches by FAM’s founder, the dulcet-toned Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine).
Travis, an insurance salesman by day, spends the rest of his time grinding non-stop for FAM, selling everything from FAM-branded nacho cheese sauce to toilet paper to body lotion, and trying to recruit, with less than successful results, yet more salesmen to the FAM fold. When he’s not working, he’s listening to (and paying a lot of money for) Garbeau’s endless recorded speeches (more than 4,000 in total) and attending FAM seminars and rallies. Even after two years of Travis’s total, dogged dedication to “the business” (even surviving on so little sleep that he’s been rendered impotent), none of Garbeau’s silver-tongued promises have come to pass. He and Krystal don’t own a yacht. They don’t own their own private helicopter. They don’t own anything. In fact, they’re far worse off financially now than when Travis first got involved with FAM.
She’s regarded with both pity and derision for her refusal to dream big, to merely just want to pay her bills when she could own so many cars that she could drive a different one every day.
However, Travis and his mentor, Cody (Theodore Pellerin), who has the mad, glassy-eyed grin of a Jonestown resident, insist that it’s not Travis that’s the problem, and it’s definitely not FAM. It’s Krystal, who’s referred to as a “stinker thinker,” and whose failure to encourage Travis’s efforts, even if they continuously result in nothing but more unpaid bills, is supposedly what’s holding Travis back from success. She’s regarded with both pity and derision for her refusal to dream big, to merely just want to pay her bills when she could own so many cars that she could drive a different one every day. Ordinary 9 to 5 jobs (Cody spells out “job” like it’s a profanity) are for small-minded people, Travis is meant to be a winner, and Krystal needs to either get on board with that, or get out of the way.
Then Travis dies, having given all the money he was supposed to put into a life insurance policy to FAM, and Krystal and their baby are left with nothing.
It can be assumed just by teasers of future episode that Krystal, as part of a plan for revenge against FAM for working her naive husband into an early grave, will also end up becoming one of FAM’s most successful salespersons, and that perhaps she’ll experience a little bit of that high that Obie Garbeau II promised. Will she keep her eye on the prize, avenging her husband’s humiliation and the loss of everything they had to FAM, or will she get caught up in the FAM cult? I guess we’ll find out, although the fact that the first step in her plan involves a shotgun gives us a good idea.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida is set in 1992, a choice that, at least for now, seems arbitrary and mostly an excuse to remind viewers that acid wash was the worst thing to ever happen to American society. It’s fascinating to see how absurd the concept of FAM is, and yet note that, nearly thirty years after the show takes place, we’re more overrun with pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing scams than ever, thanks largely to social media. The difference now is that, rather than men in dead-end jobs, they target mostly stay-at-home moms, with the same promises of infinite wealth and “building an empire.”
They’re encouraged to pour all their money into buying the products and reselling them at retail value, all while trying to recruit other people to sell the products as well. That one can make any kind of real money at all selling scented candles or “vitamin patches” is dubious. That one is in business for themselves when they sign up for an MLM is an outright lie, but it’s a lie that millions of people continue to buy into every year.
Despite its retro setting, On Becoming a God is a wry parody of modern “hustle culture,” where every minute not spent trying to make money is a minute wasted, and where every social occasion, even just a dinner with friends, is a forced “networking opportunity.” It also satirizes toxic positivity, particularly in a scene in which Krystal’s concerns about the alarming state of her and Travis’s finances are dismissed with a smug “They’re not struggles, they’re challenges.”
There’s no such thing as failure, there’s only working harder, even if you’re working so hard your dick doesn’t work anymore. With no end to this real-life nonsense in sight (even though clothing vendor LulaRoe is being sued for billions by broke, disgruntled former salespersons), it’ll be entertaining to see Krystal destroy a fictitious version from the inside out, hopefully without forgetting who she is in the process.
- I should mention Mel Rodriguez as Krystal’s obviously besotted (but married) boss, Ernie, who at first blush seems like he might be a stable voice of reason in Krystal’s life, but also seems like he could be her first official mark in the FAM scam.
- It’s interesting to note that Kirsten Dunst, in season 2 of Fargo, played a role similar to Travis, a deluded dreamer who funnels all the household income into seminars and motivational tapes that promise the listener wealth and success. That didn’t work out for her character too well then either.
- I sort of hope we don’t ever really get an explanation for how FAM, let alone the “Garbeau System,” actually works, beyond “Step 3: Profit!”
- Though On Becoming a God veers close to tired white trash stereotypes, it makes the smart move of establishing early on that Krystal, while not necessarily book-smart, is savvy, and well aware of when she’s being condescended to, particularly by the other FAM members.
- Although all of them so far pre-date the 1992 setting, there are some pretty great music cues in this episode, including T’Pau’s one-hit wonder “Heart and Soul” setting the stage for the first appearance of Obie Garbeau II, who’s up to that point treated as an almost mythical being.
- The fact that Obie shows up at Travis’s memorial service and turns it into an excuse for yet another empty, fist pumping motivational speech is perhaps both the saddest and funniest scene in the entire episode. Poor Travis, a sad sack to the very end, manages to get upstaged at his own funeral.
- Krystal’s funeral dress clearly being her one “fancy” dress (even if it’s a little too short and low-cut for the occasion) is an all too accurate touch in illustrating the life of the working poor.