Multi-level marketing companies, or MLMs, emerged in the second half of the 20th Century as a terrible solution to a real problem, which is that the American Dream, the idea that any person who works hard and follows the rules can succeed in our economy, is a miserable sham.
MLMs sell themselves as liberating alternatives to regular jobs where you punch the clock and answer to a middle manager. What if, the pitch goes, you could own your own business, be your own boss, work whenever you want AND get rich in the process? Why, it almost sounds too good to be true!
Most of these companies deal in common household products like cleaning supplies, cosmetics, toiletries and kitchenware. They circumvent the overhead costs of retail space and employee compensation by selling merchandise directly to independent distributors, who in turn sell to customers or, better yet, to their own “downline” networks of recruited distributors for commission. The diagram of how this kind of system works is notably, um, pyramid-shaped.
You probably know someone with a garage full of unsold MLM products whether you realize it or not. The Federal Trade Commission in 2016 reported that the “overwhelming majority” of Herbalife distributors, for instance, made little to no money from the system, which is true of the industry generally. And there are countless stories of people losing thousands of dollars of their own money, if not a great deal more, chasing the dream that these companies promote.
That was already common knowledge in the early 1990s, which is the setting for Showtime’s new dark comedy series “On Becoming a God In Central Florida,” but the desperation it depicts feels timely. Kirsten Dunst stars as Krystal Stubbs, a braces-wearing, working-class mom whose husband, Travis (Alexander Skarsgard), runs himself ragged in order to sell enough products from Founders American Merchandise, or FAM, to quit his cubicle job and live the high life.
Krystal, who is supportive but skeptical, finds herself in charge of her husband’s downline when work-related exhaustion leads to his (mild spoiler) early death, the precise cause of which is extremely Florida-specific. Krystal soon discovers a talent for selling the MLM fantasy of entrepreneurial prosperity to people even harder-up than she is, which exposes her to FAM’s creepy evangelical rallies, cult-like brainwashing tactics, regressive gender politics, freakish wealth fetishization and deeply suspect business practices.
Even though the show takes place near Orlando, “On Becoming a God” should be of particular interest to viewers in Michigan, since the western part of our state is a fertile crescent for this variety of narrowly legal capitalist chicanery.
I made it pretty far without mentioning Amway, which FAM clearly is meant to invoke. Several scenes in early episodes might as well have been lifted verbatim from “Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise,” a notorious 1985 tell-all published by a former distributor, Stephen Butterfield. Like, Travis putting on a tuxedo and making a spectacular exit from his office, or when his eventual funeral turns into a fevered FAM rally, or how everyone says “J-O-B” like it’s a dirty word.
“On Becoming a God” sputters a bit following its excellent pilot. It sometimes dovetails into trippy surrealism at the expense of a story and setting that’s already plenty interesting, particularly when it visits Krystal’s day job at a struggling suburban waterpark that’s hemorrhaging business to nearby Disney World.
The series is at its best when it burrows into the economic realities that might make a person susceptible to the siren song of an MLM. That’s thanks in large part to a stellar supporting cast that includes Mel Rodriguez as Krystal’s put-upon coworker and neighbor, and Theodore Pellerin as Krystal’s upline distributor and sales mentor, who is basically a walking buffet of unexamined neuroses and emotional baggage.
But the best news is that “On Becoming a God” provides an overdue, prestige-adjacent starring vehicle for Dunst, already a god(dess) to many of us elder millennials. In the pilot episode, she delivers a simple line reading — “I. Don’t. Beg.” — that suggests a vast interiority whose surface the series is just starting to scratch. Whether it’s a huckster version of the American Dream or just soap, she could sell me literally anything.