Television is engaged with this time of alarming political and social animosity better than most fiction genres. That’s a fact and we should be grateful for it.
At regular intervals along comes a series that has less a pure entertainment agenda than a plan to poke around between the lines of great storytelling and sociological insight. That usually requires emphatic characters to have any traction and a view of the world that is darkly comic. These series usually feature strong, ambitious and non-stereotypical female characters at their core.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Sunday, Crave, 10 p.m.) is one such series and boy does it have an emphatically tough, rounded woman in the central role. It’s about many things, but the Showtime-made, piquantly sour comedy is mainly about American dreams, fallacies and deceit, both personal and societal. It is also terrifically entertaining, twisted and, at times, moving. (Catch the first two episodes on-demand on Crave and savour the third on Sunday.)
Set in the early 1990s, the drama is really about Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst), a struggling mother, former pageant queen and wife to insurance salesman Travis (Alexander Skarsgard, unrecognizable from his role in Big Little Lies). The couple are at the bottom, barely making ends meet. Krystal works at a water park doing menial jobs. Travis, however, has big dreams. He’s under the thrall of a pyramid-scheme company called FAM. After listening to countless motivational cassettes and being bamboozled by his FAM mentor Cody (Canadian Théodore Pellerin, who is terrific), Travis is deluded into thinking he’s one step away from great wealth.
What he’s actually got is a house full of unsold FAM products and a wife who is deeply anxious and harried. Early on, Travis makes an ostentatious departure from his day job, things go terribly awry, and Travis departs this mortal coil.
From there, you might expect Krystal to become the spunky widow of familiar movie entertainment, rescuing herself and her young daughter with pluck and clear-eyed determination. Nope. After a series of incidents in which Krystal realizes no amount of pluck can rescue her from the deeply cynical world in which she exists, she decides that FAM is her way out. Hardened, knowing and her naiveté evaporated, she sets out to exploit the system that left her near-penniless and at the absolute bottom of the social ladder. What Krystal realizes is that everything is a lie – especially the idea that the average American can be wealthy and secure through hard work, salesmanship and grit. FAM is a scam, just as the country is, and you have to be beyond ruthless to succeed.
As such, On Becoming a God in Central Florida is satirical and often outrageously, bleakly funny. But it is Dunst who holds it all together. This is stunning work from an actor with a solid movie career behind her. And you realize how superficial those movie roles were. In a recent interview, Dunst said, “I’ve never been recognized in my industry. I’ve never been nominated for anything. Maybe like twice for a Golden Globe when I was little and one for Fargo. Maybe they just think I’m the girl from Bring It On.” Well, her work on this series is one of the best of the year on TV. Awards nominations should flow from it. You can’t take your eyes off this formidably complex, cutthroat and unappeasable figure she plays.
The series has had a tricky road to completion. Created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, and counting George Clooney among its executive producers, it was to be made for YouTube, when the platform had a plan for offering major scripted content. But YouTube backed away from that strategy and it landed at Showtime. (Canadian Esta Spalding is producer/showrunner on it.) Now it stands as one of the top series of the year, one of those prestige cable dramas that will live in your head forever. It’s that strange and good.
Also airing this weekend
Halston (Saturday, CNN, 9 p.m.) is a repeat of one of those more substantial CNN studies and it looks at the life and career of the fashion designer Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa. For a time from the mid-1960s through the 1970s his name was up there with Chanel, Dior and Valentino. He put a pillbox hat on Jackie Kennedy and his sensuous, flowing fabrics dressed a parade of movie and music stars for years. Then, it all went wrong: A massive deal to mass-merchandise his name for JC Penney diluted his brand and his personal life was a mess.
Stop Your Aging (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m. on Passionate Eye) is a repeat of a nifty study of new ways of looking at the aging process. All such programs must be taken with a pinch of salt – but watch that sodium – and among other things it promotes dancing rather than repetitive gym exercise routines. Enjoy.
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