The Brash ‘Florida’ Show That Could

DunstThe last great new series of the summer comes to TV after a rough ride through two earlier companies. First announced as an AMC project, “On Being a God in Central Florida” (Showtime, 10 and 10:45 p.m.) was bumped to lowly YouTube Premium before being picked up on premium cable, where its first two episodes play back to back tonight.

It’s a big star turn for Kristen Dunst, also listed as a producer, and brings a heap of energy to her role as Krystal Stubbs, an indefatigable mother and wife struggling to get by at a second rate water park even as her husband — Alexander Skarsgård, premium cable’s current victim of choice — gets sucked into the American dream machine of a pyramid company called FAM in the 1990s.

What’s running through his brain is the nonstop encouragement and brainwashing of cassette tapes, played over and over, in every waking hour or even as one occasionally falls asleep at the wheel pushing the product. It serves as a kind of dark narration to the series – that we can all quit our jobs and be millionaires! It was all very familiar to me, growing up in a household where my salesman father listened to the tapes constantly and parroted its content in his own conversation. But it’s not a corner of life often depicted on TV.

When Krystal is enforced to step up her game even as the repo people come calling, it all becomes a dark metaphor for today’s recession worries and the striving of forgotten people to merely stay afloat.

With a baby on her hip and a cigarette in her mouth, Krystal is a tough, meaty character to dive into. When she drives a pink ATV with baby strapped to her chest, determined to win despite the odds, she cuts a figure like Holly Hunter’s Ed in “Raising Arizona” — one to delight in and cheer on.

It’s a strong cast too, with Theodore Pellerin as a company rep so intense, squirrelly and weird he might as well be cast right now in the Stephen Miller story. Mel Rodriguez who was so memorable as Patsy in HBO’s “Getting On” and Todd in “The Last Man on Earth,” turns in another comic performance that has deeper layers than before. And Arkansas-born rocker Beth Ditto (once of the band Gossip) brings a kind of Southern authenticity to the series.

But the show’s full force comes from Dunst, the movie star who had made a splash on TV before, as the ambitious Peggy Blomquist on the second season of “Fargo.” Relocated from snowy Minnesota to the garish pastels of Florida, her fearless, edgy ambition gets overheated as well.

And it’s reliability is aided by the fact that the very Florida town where it is supposed to take place is never identified.

“Really, we wanted the sense of Orlando-adjacent,” executive producer and showrunner Esta Spalding told a session at the TV Critics Association summer press tour earlier this month. “The show is set in the spaces in between,” she says. “You’re not going to see the ocean. You’re not going to see that theme park. You’re going to see the strip malls and all the places that regular people inhabit. And one of the sort of weird tightropes in the show tonally was to try to write that as real as we could and the people there as real as we could, to love them and be in their lives, but also have them be in something that was totally comical and funny and wild, which is this scheme, and to let that be surreal. “

“The thing about Florida,” says co-creator Robert Funke, “is that it’s really sort of an uninhabitable, unbearably hot swampland that we just built an enormous theme park and cartoon mouse based economy on that made everyone in the world want to go there but not live there. And I think it’s that sort of mix of it being so uninhabitable with it having this really, really kind of purely human generated excitement around it that’s drawing people. I think we’re able to sort of find this kind of eerie half-artificial world, half kind of dangerous swampland, and it just was the perfect place to put this show.”

“The thing about that part of Florida too, it’s like it gets kind of lost,” Ditto says. “It’s not Miami. It’s not it’s like not Gainesville even. It’s like whaaat?”

For Ditto, the setting (actually shot in New Orleans because of Louisiana tax incentives) was all very familiar.

“I grew up in a really big family in Arkansas,” she says. “It was poverty. We were poor and there were a lot of us, and my mom worked her ass off. And, honestly, walking onto that set was like walking into childhood for me.”

And the poverty rang true too, for Miami native Rodriguez.

“There’s a real hopelessness in places like in Ocala and Gainesville,” he says. “These are people living paycheck to paycheck. I mean, this is America, you know, and I think this is the story …is [about] the falsehood of the American dream. These are people who cut coupons, to buy groceries. These are people who are hope that they can maybe, possibly not get their lights turned off.”

It was the kind of place where the kind of pyramid schemes they depict could fester. Funke says he recalled a story of a man “who eventually had to get deprogramming therapy because he was unable to have conversations with his daughter without slipping into a sales script. So he would be, like, ‘How are you doing?’ And she’d be, like, ‘Work’s hard, but whatever.’ And he’d be, like, ‘If you’re looking for a new opportunity …’ And this is after he had left. This is after he had sort of gone bankrupt and lost everything. Like, to have his brain be so hardwired into that jargon and that language, I think that was one of the moments early on where we were, like, ‘This is a world that needs to be written about.’

Dunst says she loved the material and worked to create a compelling Krystal.

“For me, every character I approach, I work with someone and I kind of make my own witch’s brew of, this movie, this song, this character. I did watch some ‘Honey Boo Boo’ just to free myself up,” she says. “You know what I mean? Just to get a little more free in that way.”

“There’s so much rage within Krystal that I feel like I don’t necessarily always get to express in characters,” Dunst says “But that I think women have such a deep threshold. So I feel like a lot of things I could let out, and having just had a child and all of it. And I was so tired and we worked so hard, but I was like: Krystal’s working so hard. She’s so tired. You just kind of put everything you have into it and be the most emotionally vulnerable you can so that, you know, you connect with your audience and each other while working.”

And getting “On Becoming a God” made at all was an accomplishment that mirrored what Krystal was going through.

“I actually haven’t felt so much pride for something as I have for this, because I feel like it’s been such a hard road for all of us. And I’m like seeing trailers and seeing things, like, I almost get a little emotional, because we did it. We did it!”

“It’s been three years now, and we’ve really had a little bit of a roller coaster of how this show actually got made to now being at Showtime,” she said.

When it was initially being developed by AMC, Yorgos Lantimos, who won Oscar nominations for films like “The Lobster” was attached to it; as were producing partners George Clooney and Grant Heslov, whose names are still on the project

“We’re the little engine that could and we did it, you guys,” Dunst said to her fellow cast and producers. “We killed it. We went off. We made our own show and Showtime wanted it. I’m like, we couldn’t be happier.”

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