Most Americans have a story about multi-level marketing. Chances are, you or one of their friends, family members, or coworkers, have been invited to what seems like a party, but is actually a recruitment pitch to either buy non-brand-name products or join whatever direct sales company the host works for; common ones include Amway, Herbalife, Mary Kay, and Beach Body. At the very least, someone you no longer talk to from college has likely pestered people on social media about the skincare company Rodan + Fields or leggings from LuLaRoe, to name just two.
These are all essentially pyramid schemes. But anyone involved will tell you the one they're promoting is not a pyramid scheme because a) pyramid schemes are illegal, and b) it's
illegal to call multilevel marketing companies pyramid schemes. However, these companies are definitely pyramid-shaped: They depend on not just selling their products, but on getting other people to sell their products (which those sellers have to buy first, out of pocket); having their sellers recruit further; and then having their profits funnel up to earlier investors. Studies have historically shown that a staggeringly vast majority (as many as 99%) of participants ultimately lose money. In 2018, direct sales (the preferred term according to those involved in these types of businesses) was a $35 billion industry, and several million people are either full or part-time sellers.
It's the dark underbelly of this ostensibly legal world that's at the heart of Showtime's latest dark comedy On Becoming A God In Central Florida. Set in the early 90s outside Orlando, it's a searing satire of late capitalism that's relentless in how it depicts the desperation of everyone involved in these scams. The show follows the Stubbs family, focusing on wife and mother Krystal (a revelatory Kirsten Dunst). Her husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgård), has supplemented his day job as an insurance salesman as a low-level direct sales pitchman for MLM company Founders American Merchandise, aka FAM. He's a devout follower of the cultish firm, eagerly digesting everything from his weasely recruiter Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin) to the cassette tapes that spout pearls of wisdom from the firm's uber-successful founder Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), which, of course, Travis has to pay for out of pocket. Despite the promises from the company of success, self-employment, and wealth, the family is still struggling financially.
The pilot—which officially premieres Sunday but is available on both Prime Video and YouTube—painstakingly documents FAM's empty promises and the Stubbs' descent. The deeper Travis gets into MLM, the worse it gets for himself and his family. He's losing sleep, taking out second mortgages to support his side business, and thinking about quitting his main gig to pursue FAM full time. He does this even when he's barely seen any profit from his tireless work. His recruiter or "upline" Bonar depends on Travis' clients to support his relatively lavish lifestyle and is a constant source of pressure on him. He speaks in almost cultish jargon, a recognizable tic for anyone who knows an all-too-eager MLM pitchman who can't take no for an answer. He spends time referring to any other profession as a "J-O-B" (which at one point stands for "Jester of Boss," among other silly acronyms) and breathlessly recites tenets from "The Garbeau System" the pseudo-philosophy behind the company. A series of incredibly unlucky events in the pilot tear the Stubbs apart from Travis' false hope for a better life, and Dunst, racked with Travis' debt, has to pick up the pieces.
The heart of the show is Krystal, a resilient and charismatic spouse and parent who in a past life was her small town's reigning beauty queen. Now, she's brace-faced and working at a local water park cleaning feces from locker rooms to support her husband's dreams. She brings her toddler to work and takes the bus, as Travis' initial commitments to FAM mean sacrifices for the entire family. Dunst excels in this role: Her performance is funny, humane, and spunky. From her era-appropriate work at the water park to her skepticism of FAM, the character is perfect as the center of the show's universe. She knows FAM is a pyramid scheme and she realizes it's hurting her husband, both financially and mentally; there's a particularly affecting and brutal moment during one of the couple's many arguments in the pilot, where Krystal, defeated, tells her husband, "I won't be poor again. I won't." Her delivery is chilling because her character is so clearly understanding the hopelessness of her family's situation. Like the stories on the definitive podcast on MLMs, The Dream, Krystal's situation shows how the bulldozing ethos of MLM devotees is so damaging.
On Becoming A God In Central Florida thrives on highlighting the profit-obsessed delusions of MLM. A business model that only works for people high in the pyramid, who make money off the sales and hard work of the bottom dwellers, is inherently predatory. First-time showrunners Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky are well-versed in the culture of direct sales, taking bits and pieces from Amway's conservative and flag-touting founders Rich Devos (yes, related in law to Betsy) and Jay Van Andel mixed with the more gaudy grift of MLM-figurehead JR Ridinger in their rendering of FAM founder Garbeau. Anyone who has been involved with or knows someone involved in a pyramid scheme will recognize the hallmarks: the deflecting innuendos, the corporate doublespeak, and any failure or setback is the result of not being motivated enough rather than a predatory and stacked-against-success business practice.
Though this narrative takes place decades ago, the realities and victims of MLM are still very real and have only grown from lax regulations (there have only been 25 FTC cases against these companies in the last four decades) and the internet. Krystal's foray into this seedy world resonates, too; in 2018, 75% of direct sellers were women, according to the Direct Sellers Association. There are also currently 42 members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, on the industry's Capitol Hill lobbying wing the Direct Selling Caucus.
As the season progresses, On Becoming A God In Central Florida finds a reeling Krystal, who at the end of her rope, takes on her husband's "downline" (the clientele he sells FAM products to) to make ends meet. The show is a revenge story, a series about one mother who understands the bludgeoning realities of vulture capitalism and will be even more ruthless to protect her family. It's a very American tale, one enlivened by Dunst, but with every scam and scheme, there might not be any winners by the end of it.