‘The Righteous Gemstones,’ on HBO
Abraham and Isaac. Jacob and Esau. Cain and Abel. Joseph and Benjamin. David and Jonathan. The Righteous Gemstones.
Danny McBride’s latest show is on HBO, but it’s ripped from the Old Testament. The Righteous Gemstones has everything those biblical stories have, and more. Murder, familial discord, a righteous (and jealous?) God, greed, debauchery, and full-frontal male nudity are all present and accounted for here. But also like many of the stories you’ll find in the book of Genesis, there’s the opportunity for redemption and familial grace and love, no matter how misguided these characters get.
McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, the oldest son of Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), a world-famous evangelical televangelist in the vein of Jerry Falwell. He and his siblings Kelvin (Adam Devine) and Judy (Edi Patterson) help Eli run their megachurch after their mother Aimee-Leigh dies. When a compromising video of Jesse at a prayer conference comes out, someone blackmails him, and he enlists Kelvin and Judy to help him get out of the situation.
That’s the basic plot, but, much like McBride’s last HBO show, Vice Principals, the inciting incident is just the hook. The line and sinker is the way McBride and frequent collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green use the show’s environment as a way to examine America.
Vice Principals, and McBride’s other HBO outing, Eastbound and Down, were about arrogant men who think they are owed the world and clumsily grasp at power. In Righteous Gemstones, these characters already own the world, and are fighting to keep it.
“Capitalism’s on the decline, and that’s where we come in,” Kelvin says at one point as he explains the reasoning behind planting a church in a mall, and that quote embodies how this show sees televangelism. It’s religion as American commerce. The Righteous Gemstones is one of the only shows that explores what happens when a megachurch comes to a town that already has a smaller congregation or two. The national franchise takes on the mom-and-pop stores, and this family will stop at nothing to grow its church empire.
That need for power leads to some horrific and hilarious scenarios, often within minutes of each other; McBride learned a lot about how to write a horror scene from 2018’s Halloween. The bit that ends the pilot had me covering my eyes in disbelief while I was laughing at the sheer lunacy happening on screen.
There are also a lot of subversive and funny nods to evangelical culture that could have only come from people who have lived it. The show opens in China at a baptismal ceremony in a wave pool as Rich Mullins’ “Awesome God” plays in Mandarin. Two of Jesse’s sons have “Bible names,” but the son named for Gideon, the famed Israelite warrior, is the family’s black sheep and the one named for Pontius Pilate likes to highlight all the dirty words used in the Bible.
John Goodman’s pastor-speak is so polished I was nodding my head at the TV even though I haven’t set foot in a megachurch in years. Walton Goggins plays Jesse’s uncle, who got famous on the Appalachian preaching circuit after his Gospel singing made him famous. When Jesse prays and asks the Lord to forgive him for his misdeeds, I believed him, because I’ve heard that prayer from pastors before, and I knew they believed what they were saying.
But for all its evangelical and multi-tone trappings, The Righteous Gemstones is a sitcom, at least in McBride’s eyes. He has said he set out to create a cross between a mob drama and a sitcom, where at the end of the day, the family always has each other’s backs. The Gemstone family is hypocritical, yes, but who isn’t? And what is Christianity if not one big family that should support one another?
This show could have stopped at “every preacher is a little hypocritical,” but by slowly revealing the masks these characters wear (both literal and figurative), it makes the point that these stereotypical people are human, too. Who among us is too far gone for redemption? The Gemstones hope nobody is. But for them, it may be too late.