By some estimates, there are more than 100 multilevel marketing companies operating in Utah, doing billions of dollars of business and making the state the unofficial MLM capital of the country, if not the world.
I’m guessing that the tens of thousands of Utahns who are in the business won’t appreciate Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” — although they probably ought to watch it.
Kirsten Dunst is brilliant as Krystal Stubbs, a wife and new mother who is struggling to get by while living “Orlando adjacent” in 1992. Her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgard) is a true believer in the fictional, Amway-like MLM FAM (Founders American Merchandise), though Krystal thinks it’s a crock. But, like many of the other characters, she ends up seeing it as the only way she can survive — and, she hopes, thrive.
“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (Sunday, 8 p.m., Showtime) is darkly funny — sometimes tragic and hilarious at the same time. And Krystal is a remarkably strong character battling circumstances that would sink most of us.
“There’s so much rage within Krystal that I feel like I don’t necessarily always get to express in characters,” said Dunst, who had just given birth to her son when she was in production on the 10-part series. “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 connect with your audience and each other while working.”
That she does. But Krystal isn’t the only one struggling in her town. And part of the underlying tragedy is not just how many MLM dreams come crashing down, but the collateral damage the business causes.
“All the research we did, everything we looked at, these kinds of schemes are all about people being asked to monetize their relationships,” said showrunner Esta Spalding.
In other words, multilevel marketers recruit friends and family members to buy their products and become sellers themselves, feeding money back up the chain. And it doesn’t always go well.
“What’s heartbreaking is not only the debt and the loss that people incur, but also just the ways that families are broken apart,” Spalding said. “People stop speaking. The losses become familial as well.”
(Yeah ... I know some people here in Utah who went through that.)
Television tends not to focus on people who struggle financially — people who are lower middle class, living paycheck to paycheck. But they’re at the heart of “On Becoming a God.”
“Everyone on the show wants something more for their life, and there’s no way they can get that working for minimum wage in 1992,” Spalding said. “So they’re all reaching for something else. ... This show really lives in the world of people just trying to be happy in their daily lives, and they’re being preyed on.”
They’re not going to be showing “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” at MLM recruiting meetings.
It doesn’t affect what you’ll see on TV, but the story behind the show is fascinating. Originally developed at AMC, “On Becoming a God” was produced for YouTube, until that outlet changed its focus and essentially dropped its original programming plans for YouTube Red.
Sony and Smokehouse Pictures (George Clooney’s production company) eventually sold the series to Showtime — “a happy, fortuitous event,” as far as Showtime Entertainment President Jana Winograde is concerned. “When we saw it, we loved it. ... They did such a fabulous job that we saw it as a perfect fit for our summer schedule.”
“We’ve really had a little bit of a roller coaster of how this show actually got made, to now being at Showtime,” Dunst said. “... 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. ... I almost get a little emotional, because we did it. We did it!”