Danny McBride is back on HBO with The Righteous Gemstones, his third comedy for the network. Following in the footsteps of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, The Righteous Gemstones is everything you’d expect from a Danny McBride project, for better or worse. It’s dark, profane, often juvenile, and punctuated by surprising bursts of violence. Will the show convert any skeptics to McBride’s style of comedy? Probably not. But for those already in the flock, The Righteous Gemstones is a case of preaching to the choir, built on a solid premise and filled with enough surprises to keep viewers hooked.
CREATOR: Danny McBride
Danny McBride’s latest HBO show follows a family of televangelists who are nearly torn apart by greed.
The Gemstones are a famous televangelist family that has made big business out of doing the Lord’s work. While they help spread the good word through their megachurch, behind the scenes, the Gemstones are driven by greed. That greed bonds the Gemstone family and threatens to tear them apart at any moment. Trying to hold everything together is family patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone, played by John Goodman. With a buttery southern accent, Eli is both calculating and the most earnest family member. Eli could run things on his own and be just fine, were it not for his dunderheaded kids, Jesse (McBride), Kelvin (Workaholics‘ Adam Devine), and Judy (Vice Principals’ Edi Patterson).
Viewers expecting a biting satire from The Righteous Gemstones will be disappointed. If ever there were a topic that begged for skewering, it’s televangelism. But The Righteous Gemstones is about televangelists in the same way Eastbound & Down is about baseball—which is to say, it isn’t really. McBride sets his shows in compelling environments, but in this case he doesn’t quite maximize the potential of his setting.
Where The Righteous Gemstones excels is its characters. McBride and his creative partners, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, have a strong handle on their brand of unlikable but engaging characters. The most interesting aspect of the show is that everybody is so openly hostile toward one another, but they can’t get away from each other. This makes the interpersonal drama delicious. The façade the Gemstones have created for themselves has made their world small and insular. Everyone inside and outside the family wants something from the Gemstone empire, which fuels both the plot and the relationships. The first episode alone introduces a group of blackmailers with dirt on Jesse that could jeopardize their empire, as well as a group of rival pastors.
I can see all of the bickering, fighting, and insulting turning some people off, but it worked for me. Every character has an underlying insecurity that drives everything they do. Eli is haunted by the loss of his wife, Aimee Leigh, which looms large over the show. Eli says “this family is lost” and comments that “the magic” is gone without Aimee Leigh. Goodman’s performance is rooted in this sadness, and he does great work with the character. Jesse, like every McBride character, is arrogant and remorseless. But even Jesse has a soft spot when it comes to his oldest son, who has left the family to pursue a career as a stuntman. Judy is ambitious but never gets a chance to fulfill her dreams in this misogynistic world. As the baby of family, nobody takes Kelvin seriously.
As the show progresses, it becomes clearer that we’re watching a family’s slow implosion. It’s amazing that they haven’t fallen apart yet, but you get the sense it’s inevitable. As someone who is generally a fan of the McBride, Green, and Hill collaborations, this is the most I’ve enjoyed their work in a long time. Eastbound and Vice Principals wore out their welcome quickly for me, but I’m in it for the long haul with Gemstones. Generally, this creative team works best in smaller doses, with Hill’s Observe and Report as the pinnacle. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Gemstones‘ hour-long premiere is the strongest episode. Subsequent entries are mostly able to maintain that quality, although there are a some tedious moments.
The Righteous Gemstones is consistently entertaining, and the strong characters keep the show engaging even when the humor doesn’t pop. I don’t know how long this premise can go before wearing out its welcome, but its first six episodes are strong enough to sustain my faith.