'The Righteous Gemstones': TV Review

Coarse, loud and laced with heart.
8/18/2019

Danny McBride's new HBO comedy expands on the sensibilities of 'Eastbound & Down' and 'Vice Principals' to tackle the tacky world of megachurches.

Danny McBride makes shows that broadcast at a very specific and targeted frequency, or maybe a very specific volume. On Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, characters rarely spoke when they could shout, never hung up a phone when they could throw that phone to the ground and smash it into a million pieces. The trick of the McBride shows is that when they aren't playing to the back row, or possibly to an entirely separate theater next door, they're marked by unexpected veins of heart, understated gems of restraint in a maelstrom. To appreciate the whole requires embracing that life is similarly composed of unreconcilable elements.

Although it's created by McBride solo — regular collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green contribute producing and directing credits — HBO's new comedy The Righteous Gemstones is likely to resonate with the audience that embraced his previous HBO comedies and perplex those requiring more conventionally "likable" characters. I tend to respond to the McBride comedies in their moments of stealth humanism more than I laugh consistently at the grotesquerie.

I also admire the astonishing commitment of their casts. Anchored by John Goodman, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson and McBride, this lampooning of megachurches is no exception. The Righteous Gemstones is coarse and enthusiastically performed, with punchlines that don't always hit for me, but the first six episodes have highlights of surprising potency.

Shot and set in South Carolina, The Righteous Gemstones focuses on a family of evangelists. Patriarch Eli Gemstone (Goodman) is part preacher and part spiritual bully, mostly still reeling from the death of wife and empire cornerstone Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles). Eldest son Jesse (McBridge) revels in the excess of his lifestyle, supported by wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman, adding layers to what could have been a thin part). Youngest son Kelvin (Devine) is a youth ministry hot-shot with an ambiguous private life that includes the ubiquitous presence of former satanist Keefe (Tony Cavalero). Finally, there's middle child Judy (Patterson), neglected and rarely allowed to be part of the faith-based circus that has given the family a vast compound with an amusement park and a character-specifically designed house for each kid and his/her individual dysfunctional family.

Spurring drama are an elaborate blackmail plot against the morally compromised Jesse; Eli's profligate brother-in-law Baby Billy (Walton Goggins); and Eli's latest church expansion into an abandoned corner of a mall, which immediately alienates a local pastor, played with stubborn zeal by Dermot Mulroney.

"Zeal" is probably the pervasive tone and theme of the entire series. The Gemstones are devout, but you'll spend much of the time questioning which members of the family believe the message they're selling — denominationally nonspecific — and which are driven solely by opulence that their professed creed has yielded. No matter their sincerity, they're all dedicated in some way and The Righteous Gemstones critiques them and their family unit far more than it critiques either religion in general or the commodified piety the Gemstones provide for the largely unseen masses, who definitively are not treated with contempt. McBride's comedies punch at the level of their main characters without punching down, something I generally appreciate. Even within the show, the characters belittle, emasculate and eviscerate each other — as treatments of in-family cannibalism go, The Righteous Gemstones is a complementary, more overtly comedic, portrait of genetic toxicity to HBO's Succession — without the show ever resorting to low blows.

The show itself loves these characters and illustrating every aspect of their world, from the meticulous detailing of each Gemstone home to their never-arbitrarily-chosen wardrobes or hairstyles, including McBride's curly pompadour (with graying mutton chops for gravity) and Devine's youth-group-friendly spikiness. McBride is fascinated with the ugly side of masculine competitiveness — peacocking stripped to its subtext-free essence via male full-frontal nudity — and much of the show's humor comes from the unfiltered and uncouth bantering and from a cartoonish escalation of tension. You have to wait a bit for the nicely sympathetic Skyler Gisondo and an admirably nutty Scott MacArthur to appear and a few episodes to get to Vice Principals star Goggins, having a ball as the clan's most blatant con artist, in another prime collaboration with McBride.

It's fun, if a little fatiguing in episodes that all exceed 30 minutes and reach a full hour for the premiere, to see McBride and Devine engage in heightened bickering, with Goodman, surely capable of his own Brobdingnagian flair, opting for welcome restraint and authoritative presence.

It's been a McBride trademark that as his men are pitted against one another in mutually assured destruction, the women sneak in and, by design, steal the story. In a series of borderline or even unfettered caricatures, Nettles' revelatory performance in the flashback fifth episode becomes a humanizing fulcrum, fueling Goodman's solemn turn and helping to make sense of the other Gemstones. Patterson gets laughs from engaging in one-of-the-guys profanity and matching her co-stars' raunchiness and then, in a sixth episode she co-wrote, makes the case that Judy might be the most righteous Gemstone of them all.

The Aimee-Leigh episode, also elevated by aged-down Goodman and Goggins, and the Judy-centric episode represent the middle of the nine-episode first season — and mark the point at which I stopped merely appreciating the show's gonzo devotion to McBride's tone and aesthetic and began truly to like the show and care about these characters. I went from a casual attendee of the Gemstone church to a full-on convert.

Cast: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam Devine

Creator: Danny McBride

Directors: Danny McBride, Jody Hill, David Gordon Green

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, premiering Aug. 18.