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A Song of Vice and Friars

Danny McBride’s newest HBO show, ‘The Righteous Gemstones,’ is a true-to-form jaunt into the world of an Evangelical megachurch—but above all, it’s a story about a family

HBO/Ringer illustration

Have you heard the good news about the HBO show? The one with a decaying family dynasty and a withholding patriarch—plus an entitled heir apparent, a puerile younger son, and a resentful, overlooked daughter? No, not that one. No, not that other one. Unhappy families may each be unhappy in their own particular ways, but there’s no doubting America’s most prestigious cable network has a yen for a certain kind of dissatisfaction. (Or maybe storytelling in general does; where there’s a fading power broker choosing between unworthy successors, a King Lear comparison isn’t far behind.) But HBO’s latest internecine squabble is set in unfamiliar territory for the average prestige TV viewer, if not cocreator, star, and Southern scion Danny McBride: the opulent, insular world of an Evangelical megachurch.

Premiering this Sunday, The Righteous Gemstones is the latest volume in McBride’s now-decadelong collaboration with a consistent creative patron in HBO. McBride’s place in the network’s constellation most closely resembles that of David Simon, even if the two have very different sensibilities. Neither’s current project tends to be the flashiest entry in the network slate, but that modesty both belies and enables a dependable, well-crafted artistic signature. And what Simon is to the inner workings of the American city, McBride and his colleagues are to the inner workings of the American asshole.

From the bootstrapped indie success of The Foot Fist Way through the extended character studies of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, McBride—along with Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, together forming an amorphous brain trust of comedy that skewers masculinity from inside the house—has kept a set of themes while scaling up in ambition. With such an opulent setting, Gemstones gives the trio their widest staging ground yet. McBride, Hill, and Gordon Green frequently discuss how shooting in and around their adopted hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, offers them a reduced budget and the creative freedom that comes with it. But you’d never know that from looking at Gemstones, which opens with a mass baptism in an accidentally activated wave pool and whose characters ride in private jets dubbed The Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every member of the Gemstone family lives on a shared compound in their own personal McMansion Hell, with the oversized foyers to match.

But, at its core, The Righteous Gemstones aims to be a family show. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman, a new and major addition to the ever-expanding McBride repertory) rose to fame decades ago alongside his wife Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), a big-haired, pastel-clad power couple in the vein of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In 2019, Eli is a widower delegating partial control to his adult children: Jesse (McBride), a picture-perfect family man with the moral hypocrisy to match; Kelvin (Adam Devine), a faux-hawked youth pastor with painfully try-hard energy; and Judy (Edi Patterson), who’s incompetent like her brothers but, unlike them, marginalized and overlooked accordingly. It’s Talladega Nights for a more nepotistic era of conservative dominance.

There are plenty of directions in which this setup could go. Like its unofficial sibling Succession, Gemstones could delve into the personal dysfunction of its protagonists as a demonstration of what their unchecked excess has turned them into. The show could aim broader, becoming a more institutional satire of the massive, corporatized institutions that offer a uniquely American blend of capitalism and spirituality. Or it could just concentrate on the jokes, zeroing in on the absurdist details of a subculture that’s both hugely powerful and bewilderingly strange. In the past, McBride’s best efforts have combined all three: Vice Principals, the story of two goons who unite over the conviction that they deserve by default what a black woman has earned, was an uncannily timed peek into the dark heart of white male grievance. And at just 18 episodes over two preplanned seasons, Vice Principals was able to get as nihilistic as possible without flaming out.

Gemstones has more world-building to do and more sustainability to build. Unsurprisingly, the show is at its best when simply explaining how the many-tentacled Gemstone empire works. A thrilling montage in the third episode walks us through the headquarters, outlining the step-by-step process through which a deeply personal activity becomes a commodity. Prayer requests are fulfilled by uniformed functionaries; charitable donations are converted into eye-popping stacks of cash. There’s plenty of irony, and therefore comedy, in the chasm between the Gemstones’ moralistic preaching and their materialistic instincts. But there’s also novelty. Gemstones operates at a much grander scale than Vice Principals shabby high school or Eastbound’s minor league baseball diamond. And scale means opportunity.

But Gemstones also makes the ill-advised decision to kick its plot into high gear before its context is fully established. McBride has said that one of the many partial ideas that resulted in Gemstones was an interest in “a Dixie Mafia crime story.” Though the Gemstone enterprise itself isn’t a criminal operation—most of its misdeeds are moral rather than legal—Gemstones pegs its action to a Coens-ish blackmail plot. The target is Jesse, a predictably compromised figure who revels in God’s light by day and partakes in various bacchanals at night. Yet Jesse is arguably the least interesting Gemstone. With his faux-alpha bluster, he’s a stock McBride character; with a personal life ripped from the headlines surrounding any number of disgraced conservative politicians and Moral Majority figureheads, he’s a known archetype. Neither Jesse’s flailing nor his blackmailers’ antics make for suspenseful or interesting viewing compared to Gemstones’ other strands, but they do take up much of its early episodes.

Thankfully, as Gemstones moves forward, it has no choice but to grow outward. As with Bill Hader in Barry or Donald Glover in Atlanta, that McBride isn’t necessarily the most compelling presence in his own show becomes a sort of indirect compliment. Vice Principals was a two-hander, dividing the spotlight equally between McBride’s churlish Neal Gamby and Walton Goggins’s sinister dandy Lee Russell. Gemstones keeps Goggins, hilariously aged-up as Aimee-Leigh’s washed-up former-child-star brother, but broadens into a true ensemble. Given the spotlight in a fittingly over-the-top ’80s flashback episode, Eli emerges as a fascinating figure, aware of how far he’s strayed from his stated ideals yet unable to stifle the ravenous impulse that keeps him expanding at all costs. Kelvin’s youth ministry, and distressed jeans paired with jewelry, offer a glimpse of a particularly modern form of hip Christianity, not to mention the sight of Devine doing flips on a trampoline. Jesse’s wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) is a paragon of denial whose model of happy submission is finally starting to show hair fractures of doubt. McBride is sharing the load, but not out of some form of Christian charity—it’s to his benefit, and the show’s.

The Righteous Gemstones is not the knives-out attack on Evangelicalism some viewers may expect from its log line. Like McBride’s other, somewhat divisive projects, Gemstones parodies its subjects through, though not much beyond, their highly un-Christlike misbehavior. It’s a polarizing approach, one that requires being able to laugh through the disgust McBride clearly shares, though also actively provokes. But the show doesn’t have to make any grand statements about worship to be funny, and it doesn’t have to venture outside its glitz-laden bubble to get at larger ideas. When it isn’t distracted by dragging story lines that yield more generic structure than suspense, Gemstones finds itself in the obscure corners and the overlooked bit players of the family business. Danny McBride has branched out into a new form of oblivious idiocy. What he’s found there, for the audience’s good and the culture’s ill, is more of the same.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.