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Praise Be: ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Has Returned

Danny McBride’s latest HBO series made a strong statement with a first season that combined televangelism-aided excess with familial drama. Now it’s back and delving even deeper.

Juliette Toma

Here’s how devoted John Goodman is to his role as the patriarch of a televangelist clan in The Righteous Gemstones: He got so into filming a Season 2 fight scene that he ended up in the hospital. It was a brief stay, and a mostly precautionary one, but still—that’s devotion. “It was four o’clock in the morning and he ended up falling, getting into a fight with the tow hitch of a truck, and it clipped him,” says the show’s creator, Danny McBride. “That was really scary, but he handled it like a champ.”

The sequence in question is one that reveals that Eli Gemstone is capable of a shocking level of violence. At a restaurant late in this Sunday’s premiere, Eli chides a much younger, bigger stranger for being a bit too frisky with his girlfriend in public. When the confrontation escalates into a physical altercation, the pastor turns into a version of himself that he thought he’d long ago buried. Eli doesn’t just beat up the man—he executes a finishing move on him, gruesomely mangling his thumbs. “Stereotypical gangster shit,” says McBride. “Breaking kneecaps or breaking thumbs. It just felt like that’s the sort of stuff Eli would’ve been involved with.”

“Goodman, he brought the fire,” adds executive producer David Gordon Green, who directed the episode. “You could really see it boiling within him.”

The fact that Goodman committed so hard should shock no one who’s watched The Righteous Gemstones. It’s a comedy that used the premise of an over-the-top family of televangelists as an entry point and then spent its first season delving into family drama that’d make any prestige series blush—debauchery, blackmail, endless in-fighting. With a cast that includes Walton Goggins, Adam Devine, and a scene-stealing Edi Patterson in addition to Goodman and McBride, Season 1 painted a picture of a family so busy lining their own pockets that they lost their way. Now, Season 2 plans to go even deeper, exploring Eli’s past and how it led him to becoming a megachurch mogul.

So how the hell does a boomer in a shawl-collar sweater and khakis know how to break someone’s thumbs? That’s the kind of unexpected question The Righteous Gemstones loves to answer.

Screenshots via HBO Max

Eli Gemstone, it turns out, didn’t always dream of becoming a celebrity televangelist. His origin story, told in a flashback, actually begins in the late ’60s in the squared circle. Back then he was known around his hometown of Memphis as the Maniac Kid, a professional wrestler who moonlit as his promoter’s enforcer.

To McBride, the path from pro wrasslin’ to preaching was clear. “You can see how one could play off the other; the idea of showmanship and getting the crowd on the hook,” he says. “If you were skilled at that, you might also have what it takes to be a very provocative pastor.” Present-day Eli still uses what he learned in the ring on the pulpit. He connects with his audience, has a flair for the dramatic, and never publicly breaks kayfabe. But while it seemed that Eli was able to shed his aggression, Season 2 reveals that his capacity for rage had just been dormant.

McBride, who grew up watching the WWF, has long been interested in Memphis’s wrestling circuit—known for its colorful and often ethically flexible characters who put on countless shows at local gyms, halls, and auditoriums. “I wanted to do something that took place in that world,” he says. “I’d done a bunch of research on the time period and a lot of the wrestlers. And as we started writing Gemstones, I just started remembering all that stuff, and decided to set Eli’s past in that world.”

For McBride and the show’s writers, the amount of thought put into Eli’s backstory isn’t out of the ordinary. Every choice they make—from McBride’s character Jesse’s conspicuously white sideburns; to setting a key scene in an Outback Steakhouse; to the family’s new streaming platform being called Gemstones on Digital Demand (GODD)—is memorably specific. “They make it look effortless,” says Eric André, who plays the guitar-strumming pastor Lyle Lissons, one half of a musically inclined televangelist power couple. “But there’s a big brain behind everything they’re doing.”

Even the characters’ names have been created to maximize laughs. Season 1 brought us Dot Nancy, Baby Billy, and Keefe; in Season 2, Jason Schwartzman plays a muckraking journalist from Brooklyn named Thaniel, which, no, is not short for Nathaniel. “You have to make sure that the name sounds ridiculous,” McBride says. “It has to be able to pass all the tests of emotions. I always just imagine: If I was really frustrated, what name would sound ridiculous to be saying? And the idea of being really mad or upset about someone named Thaniel? Every time we would say it, it would make me kind of laugh.”

Thaniel is a key figure in Season 2, which opens with the writer coming to South Carolina to profile Eli. The pastor’s days as a real-life bruiser may be over, but he’s still grappling with the fact that what he did in those days led directly to his current success.

It only makes sense that the Gemstone empire was born out of a world run by loudmouths who never cease calling attention to their product. For better or worse, the members of this clan are not afraid to sell themselves as God’s gift to their parishioners. After all, why let piousness get in the way of conspicuous displays of wealth?

“The thing with this show is: Show the excess,” says executive producer Jody Hill, who with McBride cocreated Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. “When it comes to subtlety, don’t do that. Do the pageantry. Do the big show. It is very fun to have characters that have a lot of money and power and they have all this influence and they use it for the silliest things.”

Season 2 features the Gemstones doing many silly things, mostly in misguided attempts to carve out bigger pieces of the family’s kingdom for themselves. Jesse and Amber (Cassidy Freeman) have dealt with their marital problems and are trying to enter into a lucrative real estate partnership with the Lissonses. Devine’s Kelvin, the youngest of Eli and the late Aimee-Leigh’s children, has assembled the God Squad, a team of cartoonishly buff men who both lift and live biblically. Kelvin’s manservant/reformed Satan worshiper Keefe, played by Tony Cavalero with the perfect amount of homoeroticism, also remains at his beck and call. It’s preposterous, yet Devine is somehow also believable as squad leader. “Devine has that thing that I feel Will Ferrell has too, where I can just look into his eyes and it makes me laugh,” says McBride. “There’s just this seriousness to it, and then something that’s just so silly.”

“The God Squad stuff took a real swing,” McBride continues. “When I was a kid, I saw this touring band of muscle men that came to my church. They did this. They would rip phone books up and everything, and showed you what the power of Christ could do. It’s something that stuck with me.”

Then there’s Patterson’s attention-craving middle child Judy and her submissive pharmacist partner BJ (Tim Baltz), who between seasons sneaked off to Disney World to get married. The secret nuptials, unsurprisingly, didn’t solidify either of their positions in the family. Still, their relationship is one of the show’s sweetest. And weirdest. “They’ve been such a fun duo,” McBride says. “I started working with Edi on Vice Principals. There’s a fearlessness to her that I just think is a blast to work with. I love the idea of populating this show with just people who are willing to just go for it. And Edi does that time and time again.”

The comedy of Gemstones may be exaggerated, but beneath that absurdity is a stunning amount of vulnerability. One of last season’s most disturbingly funny moments is when BJ and Judy meet for lunch at the Outback Steakhouse to work out their relationship issues. Judy proceeds to tell a story about the time she aggressively seduced her college professor, then kidnapped his son from school, took him to the beach, and fed him ham slices … and then she admits to BJ that she’s not nearly as sexually experienced as she claimed. It’s a rare, uncanny sort of confession—an absolutely bonkers and overly detailed story standing directly next to a deeply private, intimate admission.

“I had just gotten to such a place where I just meant what I was saying, and I felt like this was a really bad thing that had happened to Judy,” says Patterson, who wrote the monologue. “Then we would finish a take and sort of go, ‘Oh my God.’”

“It was oddly sweet and intimate to listen to this because I went in with the context of when an ex reaches out and is like, ‘Can we meet?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen?’” Baltz says. “And the takeaway isn’t like, ‘What the fuck? You should be in jail.’ The takeaway is like, ‘If I took your virginity, I wish I had known that.’ When I read that script, I remember thinking like, ‘Wow, this unlocks a lot of my character for me.’”

For Patterson, the process of shooting that scene was more emotional than she thought it would be. “It was weirdly kind of gut-wrenching to do,” she says. “Then we would laugh after.”

At its heart, The Righteous Gemstones is about family and so, naturally, the show is at its best when everyone comes together, whether it’s for an elaborate set piece or a simple lunch after church. “Table scenes can be some of the most tedious scenes to shoot because it’s 12 hours of sitting around and the camera moving around every single person, but it just ends up being so much fun,” McBride says. “Those are the scenes that we probably laugh the hardest at, because you just end up loopy by three in the morning.”

Gemstones has less improvisation than McBride’s earlier shows, but the table is where the cast lets loose. “Props out to Danny for casting the show the way he did,” Patterson says. “It works. No one’s trying to take too much of the cake when we play with each other.” That approach bears fruit this season, like when Judy’s siblings make fun of her and BJ for having their Disney World wedding officiated by Prince Eric, who they claim isn’t a “legacy character.”

“None of that was there until we got there that day,” Patterson says.

Unsurprisingly, this season’s more intimate family gatherings are complemented with several over-the-top sequences. One is BJ’s baptism, which has the production values of a Broadway musical and the feel of the world’s most expensive bar mitzvah. “When you’re in that baptism hall, it kind of feels like David Lynch’s Dune,” Baltz says. “It looked like we were in a spaceship.” (And just wait to see what he wears to the party: “When I first walked in, there were a lot of extras, I remember, that were just like, ‘Ooh, oh my God. Wow.’ And a lot of snickering.”)

But once again the season’s wildest moments belong to Baby Billy Freeman, the singing, scheming chaos agent played by Goggins. “Walton is so good at bringing him out,” McBride says. “Sometimes the more ridiculous material you hand him, the more interesting it is to see him land it, because he really can make anything land. … He’s involved in probably one of the most ridiculous things we’ve ever written before; he completely lands it in such a way that it almost makes it heavenly.”

These days, there’s no shortage of prestige TV shows about grotesquely wealthy men who don’t necessarily trust their spoiled offspring to preserve their legacies. But the similarities between The Righteous Gemstones and a certain HBO hit comedic drama are purely coincidental. “Weirdly I haven’t even seen Succession yet,” McBride admits. “And it’s not because I don’t want to see it. I do want to see it. But then there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Well, if it’s similar, maybe it’s better if I don’t watch it,’ so I’m not influenced by anything.”

Yet it’s fun to wonder who would stoop lower to protect his empire and family: Logan Roy or Eli Gemstone? Season 2 of Gemstones will answer that question. The show, McBride has pointed out, is a critique of men like Eli—those who exploit other people’s faith for personal gain—and not Christianity itself.

“I grew up in a pretty religious household and a lot of my family is still very involved with the church, and my aunt’s a minister, so I always taste test them and see, like, ‘Did we lose you this week? What did you think about this?’” McBride says. “And the people that have reached out to me and talked to me, they actually enjoy the portrayal of it because I think someone who’s devout doesn’t like the idea of these kind of cats, either. Someone who’s a false prophet using something sacred just to enrich their lives. I think it leaves a bad taste in pretty much anybody’s mouth.”

Sometimes, McBride sees what’s happening in the televangelist world and wonders whether the satire of The Righteous Gemstones has gone far enough. In November, a plumber found $600,000 worth of cash and checks hidden inside a bathroom wall at Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch.

“Every time I see one of those headlines, I’m like, ‘Fuck, people are going to think we copied this,’” McBride says. “We’re the ones who came up with the idea of putting that money in the wall. And I like to think that maybe whoever did that saw our show and were like, ‘Damn, that’s a pretty good idea.’”

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