At first glance, you may be tempted to skip over On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Even if you’re into the whole 90’s aesthetic of the setting, we probably all deal with enough multi-level marketing trash on our timelines already, and any hint of a “wonderful opportunity to be your own boss” is enough to send most of us running. Why would we want to delve into a world of these lunatics?
Well, for a start, most of us can empathize with the lead character, Krystal Stubbs, and her overt rage against pyramid schemes. Her husband, Travis Stubbs, took out two mortgages, emptied their savings, and quit his daytime job to fully commit to the Founders American Merchandise company, otherwise known as FAM, and it’s founder Obie Garbeau. Unfortunately, Krystal is left on the edge of poverty once a sleep-deprived Travis crashes his car into a lake and is eaten by an alligator. Yeah, really, an alligator. What a way to go.
If that imagery is a bit disturbing, just know that Krystal rectifies the misfortune by shooting and skinning the alligators, all while wearing her a surprisingly trendy black funeral dress. This goes to show that if nothing else you need to watch this show to see Kirsten Dunst’s Emmy worthy performance of this badass female lead who has plenty of satisfying take-action moments like that.
However, after all that, Krystal is still just a minimum wage employee at a failing water park, and she knows she can’t afford to swallow the debt and accept defeat. Instead, the so-called ‘alligator-widow’ joins the ranks of FAM to find a way to take it down from the inside and in the process to get her money and her life back on track, which is a crusade we can get behind.
Still, watching Krystal navigate the waters of this company that operates more like a cult than a place of business, you can’t help but feel nervous for her. All she wants to do is get out of debt and take care of herself and her daughter, and to do so she trods down the desperate path familiar to pyramid schemers including, spinning lies about her finances and success, blackmailing her employer to stock their shabby products, and tricking her most loyal and sympathetic friend, Ernie, into joining the FAM sham and giving up his stable job. Unlike Travis, Krystal knows that everything about FAM is a fraud and that she is hurting people by involving them in this business, but as she wrestles with her ever-present conscience the walls of FAM seem to close in around her whenever she is resolved to leave.
Even after she tries to transition into becoming a water exercise instructor, her recruitment model is too much like FAM’s and so must be shut down permanently by Obie’s crypt-keeper like a henchman, Roger. When she’s had enough and she wants to take the story to the media to expose them and make sure no one else falls for their lies, she finds the reporter she works with to be sidelined by a crippling addiction. All of which just goes to show that even when well-meaning, smart individuals get sucked into these schemes there’s really no way out.
The season culminates in Krystal helping the exiled former FAM member, Judd, rescue his daughter and take her away from FAM once and for all. Ashamed of her behavior and sick of all the lies, Krystal finally comes clean to the people she’s hurt and decides that she can no longer have anything to do with FAM.
However, there is still the pressing issue of finances to work out. Luckily, before Judd made a run for it with his daughter he detailed his mistreatment and abuse at the hands of Obie Garbeau and the FAM corporation, exposing all of their secrets and manipulations on tape. A tape that Krystal now has and uses to blackmail Obie into handing over a substantial amount of cash. Not one to buckle under the first threat, to our terror Obie sends Roger to take care of Krystal once and for all.
Que the awkward, yet somehow still likable fiancee, Cody Bonar, who accidentally shoots Roger and uses a videotape of his corpse to persuade (read threaten) Obie to give the waterpark he bought to Krystal, so long she signs on as a FAM success story, of course. The season wraps up with our lead heroine happy and safe at last, but with plenty of FAM characters still running around, including Obie who has ominous plans for Krystal’s distant family, the story is not over yet. Thankfully, On Becoming a God in Central Florida is renewed for a second season, so not only is it safe to get attached but maybe we’ll finally get Krystal’s backstory on her rough childhood, which is only hinted at through the series so far.
Besides its entertainment value, it also does a phenomenal job of depicting how these pyramid companies prey on vulnerable communities without judging the individuals themselves. People like Ernie and Travis struggle with mental health and addiction and are looking for some way to break out of their ordinary lives and something new to believe in. While others, such as the Latin community of Florida in this show, are filled with newly-landed immigrants without work visas, job prospects, or connections who become convinced that companies like FAM can provide them a legitimate income where none other seems possible. It’s difficult to watch these innocent people put everything they have into a chance of bettering their lives and to blame them for believing in it. After all, as On Becoming a God makes clear, the line between successful capitalism and fraud is razor-thin and many people understandably can’t tell the difference.
Straddling between tragedy and comedy in this way, On Becoming a God has countless laugh out loud moments inserted between scenes that will make you say, Did that just seriously happen? Without spoiling too much of the season, let’s just say that the common stereotypes about how crazy and trigger-happy Florida are well used and turn mundane scenes into pivotal plot points in ways that no one sees coming. What’s more, it might just make you feel bad for all of your current Facebook friends who have involved themselves in MLMs of some kind. Not bad enough to actually talk to them, but enough that you can know that they are more than likely just a normal person who got swindled into one of the many cons out there and that maybe one day they’ll follow Krystal’s lead and find a way out of the sham. Though probably with no were near her level of personality and style.