The American Dream, "an amorphous collection of hopes, ideals and aspirations," has long been woven into the fabric of mainstream Hollywood movies, be it Death of a Salesman or Easy Rider. On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a 10-episode series now streaming on SonyLIV, is a portrait of how the capitalist mechanism is skewed to exploit the have-nots, raucously dismantling the sandcastle that is the American Dream, with its focus on the minimum wage-earning single mother.
Set in Orlando circa 1992, On Becoming a God in Central Florida begins with a faceless man behind a microphone, his high-strung sermons booming through the cassette players and the earphones of "future founders" who could chart the heights of high living if they but religiously followed the words of the speaker, the mysterious Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), founder of the Founders American Merchandise (FAM).
A pyramid scheme company, FAM runs on the quasi-religious devotion of its affiliates, believing the company be the one-stop destination to becoming the next rags-to-riches success story. It is a dream merchant that siphons off from those who cannot afford basic necessities by promising them eternal happiness.
Travis Stubbs (Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd), sporting a mullet and an oversized waistcoat, is a hopelessly ambitious insurance salesman striving to make ends meet. Frustrated with his financial stagnancy and bamboozled by the dream of a better life and his FAM upline Cody (Canadian ThÃ©odore Pellerin), he resolves to quit his job, and become a "full-time leader." His wife Krystal (Kirsten Dunst) is a "stinker thinker" FAM skeptic, juggling her work at a water park, her marriage at the brink of divorce, and a newborn daughter.
But all dreams of grand houses and yachts and helicopters (and divorce for Krystal) are truncated when Travis falls asleep at the wheels, drives the car into a swamp, survives the fall, and is then swallowed by an alligator. Krystal is left in a mountain of debt, unpaid mortgages, and a backyard full of FAM products " toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, you name it. Her only playing card now is an inheritance, of her husband's job at FAM.
The rest of the story is fairly predictable. Fuelled with rage over her family's downfall, for which she blames FAM, she resolves to avenge her husband's death by planning to destroy the company.
But Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) is hardly the messiah you would expect her to be, standing up against the wrongs meted out by FAM. In fact, On Becoming a God in Central Florida is careful to not paint Krystle in ethical colours in order to vilify the system she is thrust forcefully to be a part of. Hardened by the realities of her circumstances, and desperate to survive, Krystle often treads the fine line between amoral and moral, tweaking the lines, blurring them to suit her convenience.
She manipulates her considerate Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), to join FAM when she understands that he is about to give up, knowing fully well that he is doomed for failure. She leads Cody into believing that she is romantically inclined towards him, brainwashing him to make her his aide, and then eventually besting him. In a particular scene where Cody warns her that Obie is not fond of those who are desperate, she quietly murmurs, "But I am desperate."
She knows the system is rigged, the odds are stacked against her, and she needs to collude with the system to get her way.
Ernie's quiet suffering then becomes the foil to Krystal's seething anger. Ernie succumbs to the pressure to the promise of a better livelihood when he realises he will never be able to fulfill the desires of his loving wife Bets (Beth Ditto) and their tween son. To him, and the many characters of On Becoming a God in Central Florida, FAM is a platitute-fulled hallucination that sucks you in into believing in its assurance of success. Thus, an Ernie finds new recruits among poor immigrants in a Spanish-speaking church congregation; and Cody injures himself in his pursuit of killing a pelican and serve it up as an offering to his almighty, Obie.
On first glance, On Becoming a God in Central Florida may appear to be just a critique of the idea that late 20th-century capitalism is an equitable and guaranteed path to success, but on closer inspection, you understand the show also an extended metaphor for sinister cults and religion and their self-serving nature.
Interestingly, creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky once revealed that they were initially looking to write about religious cults, but soon figured there was a similar devotion in attendees at company conventions chanting inspiring quotes and followers of a televangelist.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida is an acrid and relentlessly grim satire that does not let you off the tenterhooks throughout its 10-episode runtime.
There is murder, poaching, plenty of gore, and tragedy for it to qualify as borderline dystopian. Like life, the bizarre makes it hilarious, but there is no escaping the bleak.