Danny McBride has made a career lately putting a satirical spotlight on worlds anyone can relate to: minor league baseball (Eastbound and Down) and public schools (Vice Principals). What would happen if he took on a bigger but just as popular topic? The Righteous Gemstones is the answer to that, an ensemble show about a family of corrupt televangelists. Read on for more…
THE RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: In a massive pool in Guangzhou, China, a televangelist and his sons are officiating a massive baptism. Only the older brother keeps criticizing the younger brother’s dipping method, the dad is trying to keep phone camera-wielding looky-loos at bay… then someone switches the wave generator on.
The Gist: Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) has built a huge megachurch — the Gemstone Church, of course — over the past few decades, but he has felt adrift since his wife and partner in televangelism, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), passed away. Even though his church operates in a hockey arena, has its own amusement park, and everyone in his family lives in mansions on the same compound, he still wants to grow and acquire parishioners, including the ones in the small town where John Wesley Seasons (Dermot Mulroney) is trying to make sure they stay out.
His children are all fighting for their share of the Gemstone pie, all in the name of Jesus, of course. Youngest son Kelvin (Adam Devine) dresses like a refugee from a One Direction video and has his strange “friend” Keefe Chambers (Tony Cavalero), a reformed devil worshiper, staying with him. Middle daughter Judy (Edi Patterson) feels like she’s left out of the family business all the time and might just move off the compound when she finally marries her nose-job-sporting boyfriend B.J. (Tim Baltz).
The oldest, Jesse (Danny McBride), has disappointed his father at every turn by his lascivious and overspending ways, but he still feels like the empire is his when Eli retires or dies. He thinks he’s a great face for the church, given his stable family life. Well, stable-ish; one son vows to bolt as soon as he turns 18, and another one has already left, a topic that Jesse does not want to talk about. Oh, and he also has to deal with someone who is blackmailing a video of him snorting coke in presence of a couple of hookers — male and female.
He tries to get the ransom money out of the budget, but the church’s manager Matthew (Troy Anthony Hogan) tells him he can’t just give him a million dollars without running it by Eli first. Then he tells Kelvin — who he’s been having tiffs with since their mother died — about the tape and is convinced the good pastor Seasons is responsible for the blackmail. But after being proven very wrong by this, Kelvin and Judy manage to bail him out… but not without dire consequences.
Our Take: Danny McBride has always been an acquired taste for us. Sure, he writes some sharp-eyed, satirical looks at worlds like minor-league baseball (Eastbound And Down) and public education (Vice Principals), and it seems like the world of the megachurch is ripe for his Southern-tinged sense of humor. But with the sharp takes also comes a layer of potty humor and name-calling that may have sounded too transgressive in 1995, much less today.
But given the space of an hour show this time around, McBride has the time to space out the dumb jokes and mix the smart stuff with enough drama to really make the Gemstones intriguing to watch. By the end of the first episode, you already know that this family is over the top, in how they present themselves, how they dress, and how they enjoy their wealth — which all comes from parishioners who believe the money is being used in service of Jesus. McBride doesn’t shy away at how truly greedy the family is, giving Eli a heel turn as he talk with Pastor Seasons goes from folksy stuff like “we all work for the same boss” to an abject power grab in about 20 seconds. “If we were to come in and scoop up one of your churches, it ain’t worth our time. But if we scooped up all four of your churches, now you’re talking. You folks have good numbers,” he says with contempt.
McBride and fellow producers David Gordon Green and Jody Hill made the genius move of casting Goodman as Eli. We all know how truly great an actor he is, but he grounds the show like no one else in any of McBride’s other shows has been able to do. And because McBride is part of an ensemble and and not as front-and-center (though he in plenty of the premiere) as he was in his other two shows, his macho idiot persona doesn’t wear on the viewer as much.
What we find curious is that HBO decided to schedule Gemstones right after Succession on Sundays. They feel like the same show in a lot of ways, funny and smart takes on infighting in powerful families. Sure, the Gemstones are Southern and Jesusy and the Roys are old money and conservative, but the premises are remarkably similar. We’ll see how much different McBride’s vision of this infighting is.
Sex and Skin: We see some full frontal on the video that was sent to Jesse as blackmail.
Parting Shot: Eli watches old tapes of their church service broadcasts, when Aimee-Leigh was still alive and the family still seemed to be together. The Gemstone siblings drive back from the ransom drop, realizing that they’re in deep shit because things went very, very wrong out there.
Sleeper Star: Cassidy Freeman plays Jesse’s wife Amber, who is as invested in the family’s success as anyone else. But she also seems like she’ll have Jesse’s balls if she ever finds out about that video.
Most Pilot-y Line: When Jesse kisses his older son while he’s sleeping, the kid says, “Fa—t, you woke me up.” Danny, was using that word really necessary?
Our Call: STREAM IT. HBO loves McBride for a reason; his shows are sharp and they appeal to audiences their shows don’t generally reach. The Righteous Gemstones has the chance to be the best show McBride has ever made.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.