It may be best to focus on all the things The Righteous Gemstones is and not worry about the things it’s not.
It is the latest HBO comedy series from longtime collaborators Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, whose track record for television includes the brilliant Eastbound & Down and the sporadically funny, occasionally grueling Vice Principals.
Gemstones follows a family of Christian evangelists who operate a South Carolina megachurch, led by patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), with McBride as eldest son Jesse, Workaholics’ Adam DeVine as youngest son Kelvin, and Edi Patterson—so hilarious in a small role on Vice Principals—as neglected middle daughter Judy.
The Gemstones are obscenely wealthy, living in separate houses on a giant compound. The matriarch—and glue—of the family, Aimee-Leigh (played in flashbacks by Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles), has died, leaving Eli a grieving widower and the adult kids endlessly squabbling. If you’ve seen any of McBride’s stuff before, you know that expletive-laden insult battles are the name of the game.
And it’s plenty funny. But one wonders what we might have gotten if McBride and his collaborators weren’t quite so comfortable working together—and if they had used the rich milieu of American evangelism to stretch themselves further. Gemstones isn’t particularly interested in exploring the hypocrisy of profit-driven religion, nor in examining the inner faiths of its supposedly pious characters. We’re simply meant to guffaw at this boorish family of spoiled brats who take money in the name of Jesus but don’t seem aware of the good book’s moral teachings.
In other words, it’s a show about wealth and power, not about God. And maybe that’s point enough. McBride’s Jesse is essentially a reprise of Eastbound & Down’s crass, arrogant Kenny Powers, and a big chunk of Gemstones’ plot is propelled by Jesse’s efforts to suppress a blackmail video that shows him at a cocaine-fueled orgy.
One of the blackmailers is played by Scott MacArthur, whose performance exemplifies my frustrations with Gemstones: MacArthur had a supporting role as the doofus boyfriend on the now-canceled Fox sitcom The Mick, where he was fucking excellent—charming, gross, and hilarious in one fell swoop. In Gemstones, MacArthur just shouts swear words and breaks things. He’s annoying, and one wonders how the show managed to do a charismatic performer such a disservice.
Goodman, too, is oddly wasted, barely given anything to do other than look sad about dear, departed Aimee-Leigh. His character is fleshed out a bit more in a later episode, which flashes back 30 years to diagram the initial rift between the Gemstone family and Aimee-Leigh’s brother, Baby Billy, who’s played with diabolical zeal by the great Walton Goggins. Baby Billy is more of a cartoon than a character, and while Goggins is often a joy to watch, he also sometimes ventures into irritating territory.
Still, the laughs are usually there, even if the thoughtfulness isn’t. And, to be fair, Gemstones gets better as it goes along. (I saw six out of nine episodes, and the hour-long series premiere was easily my least favorite.) Maybe a grounding force like Eastbound’s fantastic Steve Little character would have given the show a bit more humanity. As it is, it’s just more rich kids behaving badly and hiding behind the cross to do it. They’re overdue for a reckoning—we’ll just have to see if Gemstones gives it to them.
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Sunday, August 18, on HBO.