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TV in the Sunshine State

Kirsten Dunst’s ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’ joins ‘Claws’ and ‘Florida Girls’ to complete a trio of shows that utilize their vibrant Southern location without turning it into a joke

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Multilevel marketing—corporations that ostensibly sell commodities, but in reality draw the vast majority of their revenue from independent contractors required to buy their own stock—happens everywhere in America. Hit podcast The Dream is set largely in Michigan, home of both host Jane Marie and Amway, the most notorious MLM of all; as parodied on Los Espookys, Herbalife has targeted Latino communities across the country, even hiring Los Angeles’s former mayor as an adviser. In fact, the MLM might be the most American institution there is. Selling thousands on the empty promise of upward mobility only to enrich a select few at the top, it’s a far more authentic reflection of this country’s true ideology than the canned American Dream that’s sold to its customer-employee-victims.

But of all the places to set a story about a woman caught in the clutches of an MLM, On Becoming a God in Central Florida chooses wisely. Premiering this Sunday, the Showtime series stars Kirsten Dunst, settling into her new comfort zone of TV after a revelatory turn in Fargo Season 2, as Krystal Stubbs, a freshly widowed single mother who’s inherited her husband’s debt-ridden “business” with Founders American Merchandise, or FAM. A pragmatic “Splashercize” instructor at a local water park, Krystal decides the only way out is further in, betting big she’ll become one of the precious few at the top of FAM’s pyramid scheme.

The building blocks of FAM’s so-called “Garbeau System”—intense patriotism, relentless individualism, a not-even-borderline-religious faith in the elusive titular founder, Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine)—are complemented by their context. On Becoming a God takes place in 1992, when MLMs had to do their recruiting face-to-face instead of via Facebook or Instagram (and when there weren’t widely available exposés debunking their practices). The action also unfolds in and around Orlando—much like 2017’s The Florida Project, directly in the shadow of the so-called Happiest Place on Earth. But the reasons to center a story about desperation, rigged systems, and upward mobility in the Sunshine State go beyond mere irony. As a growing number of TV shows are discovering, Florida is fertile ground for more than just the gators who devour Krystal’s husband. (Classic Florida.)

A few summers ago, crime dramedy Claws made its triumphant debut on TNT as a sort of neon-clad, humidity-soaked Breaking Bad. It’s hard to describe any show whose characters include a scammer with multiple personalities, a baseball-bat-wielding lesbian enforcer, and a bisexual Dixie Mafia boss named Uncle Daddy as “quiet,” but in the three full seasons since, Claws has quietly become one of the most consistent pleasures available on television. As the story has gradually drifted away from the one-last-job premise of the earliest episodes and settled into the swamp, both literal and metaphorical, Claws has matured into a tale of female friendship and solidarity on par with Broad City. First and foremost, the show is a story about Tampa-area salon owner, money launderer, and all-around hustler Desna Simms (Niecy Nash) and the “crew” she’s assembled as a surrogate family to one another, even as the ensemble grows to include late-series antagonists like a sociopathic casino owner played by Deputy Hawk from Twin Peaks.

But Claws is also a master class in how to tell a story about an economically marginalized, culturally eccentric slice of America without laughing at its inhabitants. The show both leverages the absurdity of its surroundings, often with the help of some Emmy-worthy costume and production design, and takes its protagonists’ desires seriously. Desna may spend much of the season in an eye-popping condo with enough reflective surfaces to make Tony Montana’s nose tingle, but her protective urge to provide for her loved ones and escape the rat race is sincere. Like Krystal, Desna’s primary goal is to leverage herself out of instability through whatever means are at her disposal, however illegal or even just unethical they may be. Claws understands that the core of many crime stories are people who don’t have access to more legitimate forms of success. And post-recession Florida, with its foreclosed McMansions and acute opioid crisis, breeds desperation and resolve alongside casinos and leopard-print Spandex.

A similar scrappiness underlies Florida Girls, the straightforwardly titled sitcom that broadcast its 10-episode first season earlier this summer on Pop, the little-known network that’s become an underrated comedy powerhouse with the likes of Schitt’s Creek and, more recently, One Day at a Time. (Don’t be surprised if, like Schitt’s, Florida Girls enjoys a second life on streaming in the near future.) Created by costar Laura Chinn, Florida Girls centers on four best buds and mobile home roommates whose friend has just moved out, triggering a wave of self-doubt in Chinn’s Shelby. While Shelby decides to start studying for her GED, she and her friends bide their time working at a shady mermaid bar, running prescription fraud, and doing acid at the local water park—a potential crossover opportunity with On Becoming a God, if the latter weren’t set before some of Florida Girls characters were born.

There’s a sunniness to Florida Girls that both belies and counters the darkness of its surroundings. There are frequent casual jokes about abusive parents, functional illiteracy, and rampant drug addiction sprinkled throughout the show’s fun-loving high jinks, and Shelby’s real sense of inadequacy and inertia drives the entire plot. But the casual bleakness of their environs only makes the bonds among Florida Girls’ quartet that much more sweet by comparison. Their commitment to staying carefree and having fun, championed first and foremost by wild child Kaitlin (Melanie Field), becomes something like defiance, turning the foursome into an aged-down version of Claws’ girl gang. Twenty years after the debut of Sex and the City, a group of single, childless young women is now a clichéd subject for a show—but mostly affluent, coastal, urban ones. In their much less well-off environment, the Florida girls’ unattachment carries a very different context. They haven’t progressed into full adulthood, but they haven’t been tied down, either.

Informed by Chinn’s perspective as a Clearwater native, Florida Girls ably takes on the challenge of acknowledging its location’s flaws without sneering at them. The show understands Shelby’s desire to move on, but counters it with Kaitlin’s open celebration of everything that makes Florida such a bizarre and unique expression of America’s many contradictions. MAGA hats abound, but so does casual diversity; both Claws and Florida Girls lightly rib white characters for cultural appropriation, while On Becoming a God echoes Herbalife in a bilingual character’s recruitment of Hispanic immigrants. Conspicuous consumption butts up against widespread destitution. Sunshine gives way to hurricanes, and optimism persists despite all evidence to the contrary, which is either a beautiful or terrible thing. No wonder Florida begat its own superhero to rival the Man of Steel in his status as a national symbol.

On Becoming a God in Central Florida is at once darker and more surreal than its more lighthearted cousins. The first few episodes, as Krystal goes from half of a flawed but loving marriage to the bottom of FAM’s slippery ladder, can make for a tough watch, due to both the oppressive weight of Krystal’s circumstances and the show’s uneven tone. At first, death-by-gator makes for an awkward fit with an otherwise unsparing takedown of predatory capitalism. But before long, On Becoming a God starts to use fantasy elements to augment its portrait of what is, at its core, already a fantasy. The Garbeau System is a fairy tale of success and, much more frequently, failure entirely on one’s own terms, with no one to take the blame except oneself. So On Becoming a God supplies us a monster (Obie, stuffing burnt Hot Pockets into his mouth like the ravenous beast he is), a princess (Krystal, smiling in a mermaid costume to monetize her own elusive happiness), and even a frog trying desperately to become a prince (Krystal’s gawky “upline” Cody, who becomes her unlikely partner).

In the vision of creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, as well as pilot director and executive producer Charlie McDowell, Florida is a place where America becomes the most stripped-down, primal version of itself. A man kills a pelican with his bare hands to prove his strength; a woman has to start from literally nothing to claw her way back from the brink. The hot pink ATVs and chlorine-soaked water slides are more than an aesthetic boon—they’re an unfiltered expression of characters’ instincts and desires. One man’s tackiness is another’s unvarnished truth. FAM is only a more extreme version of the weighted odds most workers face every day. When Krystal explains its business model to a skeptical reporter, she responds, “Isn’t that just business?” Claws and Florida Girls take a more whimsical view of the same idea: You can scoff at Florida all you want, but a closer look shows it’s less a cesspool than a mirror.