Showtime is exposing the dark underbelly of multilevel marketing companies in its new comedy, On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Set in 1992, the show stars Kirsten Dunst as an Orlando-area water park employee making minimum wage who ascends the ranks of a multibillion-dollar pyramid scheme called Founders American Merchandise.
To create the faux multilevel marketing company, producers researched real companies but used “nothing proprietary” from any of them, co-creator Robert Funke said earlier this month at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour.
However, added showrunner and executive producer Esta Spalding, “The writers’ room was filled with boards and lingo. We just completely created a world … a theology.”
The series looks specifically at the impact these companies have on relationships with families and friends.
“All the research we did, everything we looked at, these kinds of schemes are all about people being asked to monetize their relationships,” Spalding said. “People who they love, people who are their family and friends, and they’re asked to please make that into money. And what’s heartbreaking is not only the debt and the loss that people incur, but also just the ways that families are broken apart. People stop speaking. The losses become familial as well.”
Many producers and cast members said they had experiences with multilevel marketing schemes when they were growing up.
“I had a football coach try to recruit basically the whole team to do AdvoCare,” Funke said. “And preachers. I had teachers, sort of anybody that was in a position where they had access to a large room of people at one time, it was not uncommon to hear that used as a chance to recruit.”
Actress Beth Ditto said a friend of hers was involved with Amway. “She was like, ‘Hey, get your boyfriend to talk to his mom and dad, see if they’ll come to a meeting.’ I was, like, ‘I am not doing that.’ And she was, like, ‘Why? I’m sorry, I want my parents to get rich,’ you know, very defensive,” Ditto recalled. “It was pretty sad because, as a teenager, I was even, like, ‘Oh, y’all, this is never going to work.’”
In their research, Funke said, producers found one man who “eventually had to get deprogramming therapy because he was unable to have conversations with his daughter without slipping into a sales script. So he would be like, ‘How are you doing?’ And she’d be like, ‘Work’s hard, but whatever.’ And he’d be, like, ‘If you’re looking for a new opportunity…’ And this is after he had gone bankrupt and lost everything.”
Continued Funke, “To have his brain be so hardwired into that jargon and that language, I think that was one of the moments early on where we were, like, ‘This is a world that needs to be written about.’”