Kirsten Dunst’s new early-’90s show about pyramid schemes and American dreams is so sharply observed that it can reach through the TV and peel a layer right off your skin. It’s a balance of comedy and drama so sneaky that you’ll be laughing along with the clown while only registering at the back of your mind that his teeth are awfully sharp and rusty looking.
“It’s this suburban surreal comedy, but it was only ever going to be funny if you were crying at the same time. We want the audience at any moment to know there is a joke or laughter and to also be feeling like, ‘Ooh is it okay to laugh? Something terrible is happening.’ That’s the sweet spot of the show,” says series co-executive producer Esta Spalding.
After the first episode, we were utterly sold on it. We’ve bought the tapes, ordered all its products, and now we’re here to encourage you to join us for the rest of the season.
In just four steps, we’ll show you why On Becoming A God In Central Florida is our new obsession. But don’t watch it alone, bring your family and friends and co-worker to our Monday meetings on M-Net (DStv 101) at 19:00, or on DStv Catch Up.
Tape 1: What is Becoming A God?
The series introduces its themes via a struggling young couple clawing at the edges of even a promise of success. But hard-working new mom Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) and her “go-getter” insurance salesman husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgard) have unwittingly allowed a parasite into their home.
Anyone who’s seen “multi-level marketing” products slowly take over a friend or family member’s life will spot the signs instantly. It’s in the boxes of over 2,000 motivational “business” tapes all touting the Garbeau System, the fact that every single household product in the Stubbs home is cheaply packaged and branded with the FAM (Founders American Merchandise) logo – products that you can grow rich beyond your dreams by selling if you just follow the Garbeau System. It’s in the guarded look in friends’ eyes when the Stubbs family invites them to dinner. Because you know there’s just another heavy-handed sales pitch lurking under a smear of casserole (episode 1’s dinner scene is a work of art). And as the drama unfolds, more and more symptoms of the parasite will come crawling out of the woodwork.
Most worrying is Travis’s look of manic zeal every time he parrots back the words from his motivational tapes. While regular families can shut their boss out the moment they walk out the office door, Travis’s FAM supervisor – Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin), the guy who recruited him into the System – shows no such respect for boundaries. A symbol for the nature of the Garbeau System, Cody is in the Stubbs house, inviting himself to dinner, telling Krystal how to behave, and interrupting Travis at work, which he pours contempt over, to remind him of his dreams and how they’re linked to the scheme.
It’s quickly clear how FAM founder and “marketing Guru” Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) – he of the Garbeau System – does business. His system combines the brainwashing techniques of cults, the win at all costs narrative of predatory capitalism, and lashings of good old-fashioned sexism to sweeten the deal.
Tape 2: A Man’s world
All the Garbeau System motivational tapes are targeted solely at men, with a scattershot approach at hitting their dreams. There’s a lot of talk about working hard to support their families, but that’s spliced in with talk about having your own yacht, helicopter and fleet of cars, and someone to drive you in them. There’s a role for women in the Garbeau System, too. In episode 1, we see former beauty queen Krystal trotted out on stage in a pretty dress to stand at Travis’s side and say nothing during a presentation. Garbeau wives are there to boost their husband or partner’s image, to be a glamorous, poised and (most of all) silent proof of his success.
Becoming part of the Garbeau System means total support, even attending the “wifey” meetings where, in typical invasive fashion, the more senior wives will nitpick your appearance and your language. During one argument Cody tells Krystal that her language is “unattractive”. She gets told that “being a Founders woman means being supportive and it means being available”. And also: “Don’t let your choices ruin his opportunity,” and that’s the official line in the Garbeau System.
Tape 3: The Cult
If you’ve read about cults and seen shows about escaping them, so much of how the Garbeau System works will be familiar. There are those sticky nicknames for anyone who opposes the System: Travis finds them handy in episode 1 where he calls Krystal a “Stinker Thinker" – the similarity to Scientology’s “suppressive person” language is no accident.
The first episode’s wifey meeting also echoes a cultish, harem-style get-together in the wives’ modest pastel outfits and the way the scene is brightly and dazzlingly lit in a white living room, with a white, blonde matriarch in the centre and all the ladies looking to her with their heads tilted worshipfully. It’s practically the recruiting brochure cover for a conservative American politician’s vision of paradise on earth. Onscreen it’s as hilarious as it is horrible.
Travis’s sleep deprivation from working all hours selling FAM products and organising FAM promotions and conferences clearly leaves him wide open and suggestable until his every action, as manipulated by Cody, directly undercuts what he believes himself to be working towards.
The Garbeau System also features what appears to be an infinite ladder to success, with each of the rungs named after an American president. More privilege is promised on each run of the ladder, with the highest reward being personal contact with and mentorship for the great leader, Obie Garbeau himself.
By playing up his own material success in a culture that glorifies material success above all else, Obie has created a cult of personality around himself that leads to open-mouthed awe and a desperate desire for contact among his followers whenever he condescends to make a rare in-person appearance. Obie’s followers have been told their whole lives that they can go from nothing to becoming millionaires if they just put their heads down and work hard and smart enough, and Obie is claiming to “make millionaires by the fistful”. The American dream was right there waiting for him, all he had to do was skin it and dress himself up in it and wait for a sucker to walk by.
Tape 4: The unmasking
From its first episode, On Becoming A God In Central Florida uses its wardrobe (with incredible work by wardrobe head Stacey Battat), make-up and props as visual signals to expose the shabby reality of the Stubbs family’s lives and the truth about the Garbeau System. The show’s use of music and silence drives it all home, particularly in one scene that Travis believes to be a moment of triumph. In a movie, it's the sort of job-quitting scene that would be played to triumphant music. In the show, with absolutely no soundtrack support, it plays out like pathetic lunacy. The lack of music is also used to enhance the horrible awkwardness of the dinner party in a way that left us squirming.
Cody and Travis dupe their recruits by hiring limousines and tuxedos and ramping up their energy for conferences to play out a story of success – but neither seems to consider that Obie could be playing the same game. One look at the utilitarian, unbranded helicopter he arrives in during episode 1’s funeral scene, though, and we were making calculations about how much it cost to hire for an hour. Obie’s suit is ill fitting, too broad at the shoulders and clearly untailored (even by ’90s standards), judging by how it wrinkles, his shirt is too big, and his jewellery is vulgar. It all shows him up to be no different from Travis or Cody, whose wardrobe choices reveal the same cheap faults.
There is also wonderfully wicked comedy in a scene (filmed from above) in which Travis and Cody are trying to pull someone into their vision of the sweet life, by “relaxing” together in an above-ground pool, cornering him in it like sharks while he keeps his lilo between him and them like a shield. It is touches like this that are so acute and so observant that we’re completely sold on the next episode. Everything is a little heightened, a little absurd, and a lot recognisable in this caricature of life.
Best of all, by the end of episode 1, it’s clear that Krystal is going to mean trouble for Obie Garbeau. She has that stubborn set to her mouth, flinty look in her eye and shotgun-toting, alligator murdering determination to see it through.
Esta comments, “It felt so familiar to me, that struggle, and the trade-offs she (Krystal) has to make and the sacrifices she had to make felt really close to my heart, and I also felt like it was so much about class in America – about how the whole game of the American dream is really rigged for the wealthy. One of the essential parts of understanding the character is she doesn’t have the luxury of being good. She knows the system is rigged, but she knows she can’t survive on minimum wage at that time – and you certainly can’t anymore – so she’s always calculating and knows she can’t do what she wants. She has all of this rage, and asking the question of what would happen if she put all of that aside, we thought was an interesting question.”
Watch On Becoming A God In Central Florida on Mondays on M-Net (DStv 101) or see it on Catch Up