“The Righteous Gemstones”: More Farce Than Satire

Actor, comedian, producer, and writer Danny McBride has made a career out of comedically portraying a particularly delusional kind of masculinity: men who hide their fragility behind entitlement and delusions of grandeur. In the comedy series The Righteous Gemstones, McBride applies a similar posturing to the world of megachurches and televangelism, an industry known for its hypocrisy and quixotic self-righteousness. This world is a near-perfect fit for McBride and the show’s supporting cast, all of whom are experienced in variations of the absurdism that has made McBride so prominent.

The Righteous Gemstones, now in its second season and renewed by HBO for a third, follows a family of wealthy televangelists during a potential transition of power between patriarch and head pastor Dr. Eli Gemstone (played by the lovable and imposing but exhausted-looking John Goodman) and his three incompetent children.

Season 1 focused its lens on the eldest of the Gemstone children, Jesse (played by McBride), who enlists the help of his siblings to recover a tape that could expose his illicit drug use and philandering. Jesse eventually repairs his bond with his family and learns about real charity from his estranged son. Season 2 starts with a literal smack in the face and introduces us to a world apart from the ministry: Memphis Wrestling. We quickly learn that Eli wrestled in his youth under the moniker “The Maniac Kid” and moonlighted as a part-time enforcer for the Dixie Mafia. Reckoning with his past becomes a central conflict for Eli and his children as reporter Thaniel Block begins investigating the church, as an old Memphis friend named Junior (played by Eric Roberts) returns to Eli’s life, and as a mysterious gang of neon-clad bikers threatens the family’s lives.

A comparison can be made here between the kayfabe — the unbroken presentation of staged personas and events as authentic both in and out of the ring — in both televangelism and wrestling. This is clearly a theme worth exploring, but the show loses interest in it. Watching the show in Charlotte, North Carolina, former home of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and still full of megachurch evangelism, I found it easy to imagine a version of The Righteous Gemstones that shows the harm these ministries can cause to individuals, communities, and the political direction of our country. But Gemstones only touches briefly on these subjects before focusing on the absurd childishness of its main characters. The show is more farce than satire, although it sometimes wants to be both.

Jennifer Nettles as the deceased matriarch of the Gemstones (seen in flashback) and Walton Goggins as Uncle Baby Billy Freeman are the most tone-perfect of the main cast, expressing believable charisma and Southern charm. As much as I love the breadth of talent and improvisational skill of the cast as a whole, the rest of the Gemstones and other ministers in their orbit are relatively bland. I was delighted to see Eric André appear as cowboy preacher Lyle Lissons, moving his worshippers to gymnastic ecstatics with his hands, but it felt like a step down from the heights of madness he maintained on The Eric André Show. Besides a cowboy hat, the true but subtle joy of watching him snack at a barbecue charcuterie plate with his fingers, and his plan to build an opulent Christian resort called “Zion’s Landing,” there’s not much to laugh at when he’s on screen.

Edi Patterson, who has spoken about the permission McBride gave her to be outlandish in Vice Principals, is given plenty of room here as Judy Gemstone. But sometimes permission becomes indulgence. Consider for yourself whether the entire family expressing their fear about Eli’s death with exaggerated vomit is disarmingly silly or obnoxious. But, overall, it’s a treat to see comedians like Patterson and Tim Baltz as BJ (both actors are semi-regular guests on the transcendently juvenile improv podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!) go over-the-top with their uncanny chemistry on screen.

And Adam Devine, who plays the youngest son Kelvin Gemstone, expands the athletic delusions of his character in Workaholics by starting a missionary group composed of bodybuilders and finds himself tied up by his own hubris when he is overpowered by his much stronger but equally childish missionaries. Devine can be pretty one-note, though, and the homoerotic intimacy between him and reformed Satanist Keefe Chambers isn’t interesting or all that funny when played just for humor. But Keefe, played by Tony Cavalero, is the pillar of the show’s most strange and playful moments. In Season 1 Keefe returned to his Satanist roots and became “the baby” by housing himself in a DIY sensory deprivation tank in the back room of a goth club. In this season he’s the best part of the Lord of the Flies-esque bodybuilder uprising, bringing absurd pathos to a deeply silly situation.

These moments, when there is real strangeness in the world, make me want a stronger season of the Gemstones, one that takes better advantage of its cast’s strengths and fully develops its fascinating interests and diverse influences. At times Gemstones comes close to the odd, epic scope of Roadhouse, to the impossible tonal shifts of Twin Peaks, or to the baptismal irreverence of John Waters, but it never quite arrives. Given McBride’s stated aim of turning the Gemstones into a family saga in its third season, time will tell if he and his actors reach closer to that potential. Regardless, it’s good to have comedians willing to reach.

TELEVISION
The Righteous Gemstones
Created by Danny McBride
Seasons 1 and 2 available to stream on HBO Max