It’s hard to live up to a title like On Becoming a God in Central Florida—and at first the new Showtime dramedy seems doomed to disappoint. Set in an Orlando suburb in 1992, it opens with a crisis in the marriage of Travis (Alexander Skarsgard) and Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst). Travis is entangled in a pyramid scheme called Founders American Merchandise. Though he’s got little to show for it, he’s determined to quit his day job. If he does, Krystal says, she’ll take their baby and leave.
A miscast Skarsgard sets the stage for a broad, mean-spirited satire. But once he’s sidelined—in an early twist too insane to spoil—the delightful Central Florida (debuting Aug. 25) belongs to Dunst. A brace-faced dynamo who works at a water park, she plays a tenacious mom in the Mildred Pierce mold. The role suits Dunst’s perky intensity, calling back to her turns in Fargo and Drop Dead Gorgeous, and grounds polemic from first-time creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky in a smart, mostly sympathetic protagonist.
Like two other summer standouts, Florida Girls and David Makes Man, the show frames the Sunshine State as a microcosm of America—a melting pot about to boil over, where strivers of all backgrounds struggle and scheme. To that end, its supporting characters are vivid: One step above Travis in the FAM hierarchy is Cody (Théodore Pellerin), a type-A twerp with a masochistic streak. Krystal’s kind, married co-worker Ernie (Mel Rodriguez) gets sucked in because he feels drawn to her for reasons he can’t or won’t understand.
Atop the pyramid sits Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), who’s made a fortune selling fantasies of owning a helicopter and being one’s own boss. His taped affirmations bookend the episodes, reminding us that FAM symbolizes the American Dream. Central Florida isn’t breaking new ground here; it’s weakest when it harps on the obvious metaphor. Everything the show wants to communicate is already there in the characters, each one a case study in who wins and loses in this country.