Both Succession and The Righteous Gemstones, which just debuted its second season, make a promise to the viewer: this is how the world really works. In Succession, this is pretty straightforward as the audience watches the super-rich attack each other while smiling at the occasional stockholder’s meeting.
With “I Speak in the Tongues of Men and Angels” and “After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come,” Gemstones solidified what creator Danny McBride established in season 1: a show where the jokes and the plot stand side-by-side, where singing and prayer can cover up murder and blackmail. Which world is the real one? For the Gemstones, they both are.
The merging of entertainment and violence came straight into focus in season 2, which starts off with exploring family patriarch Dr. Eli Gemstone’s (John Goodman) past as an outlaw wrestler known as Maniac Kid. One question that emerged over the first season of Gemstones was surely, how on Earth did a kindly old televangelist like Eli raise kids like Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin?
Season 2 begins to answer that question by suggesting that Eli has been acting along with all the rest of them. After a vintage flashback to Memphis where Eli is a thumb-breaking thug working on the side for a wrestling boos, the past catches up with him in the form of Junior (Eric Roberts), that boss’s son who was kind of a jerk back then. But now he’s been humbled by his own father’s abandonment, and comes to Eli in memory of old times.
Junior has an ability that none of the Gemstone children seemingly posses: he can make Eli smile. After they emerge victorious from a parking lot brawl, Junior quickly becomes Eli personal confidante, coming even closer when he tells Eli that he wants to pray.
But for Jesse (McBride), his father’s sympathies are just more proof that the old man’s time has passed. The Gemstones are starting to enter the 21st century thanks to their new streaming service, GODD, but things aren’t moving fast enough for Jesse. His relationship with Amber (Cassidy Freeman) has healed, to the extent they now lead a church group dedicated to giving marriages a second chance. They’re a Christian power couple looking for someone to match their energy, and they think they’ve found some partners in Lyle and Lindy Lissons (Eric Andre and Jessica Lowe).
Like Junior with Eli, the Lissons have come quickly into Jesse and Amber’s lives promising to make them feel like who they really are, deep down inside. Eli’s a brawler who loves a fight and Jesse is eager for his ascension, and they just can’t help themselves. Andre perfectly matches McBride’s energy (as does Freeman), and seduces the two Easterners with a rocking church, line-dancing led by Joe Jonas, and ownership in an expensive Christian timeshare, Zion’s Landing.
But Zion’s Landing will cost them $10 million. While Jesse and Amber are rich, they’re not as rich as the Succession kids. They need their father’s help on this one, and not even Amber’s green dress can convince Eli to help out. When Eli tours the potential property, which is still under federal protection, he finds Jesse’s ambitions appalling, and finds just the right moment to humiliate him. The cruelty he first used with Junior is finding itself again.
He’s more focused on nosy New York reporter (Jason Schwartzman) Thaniel Block, who has a track record of finding dirt on megachurch pastors and is asking questions about his dearly missed wife Aimee-Leigh, of all people. The only saint among the Gemstones, Aimee-Leigh’s death hangs over Eli heavily. Asking about her is a strong provocation, asked by reporter who enjoys poking the bear.
The end of season 2’s second episode sets up further intrigue relating to Block, but it’s clear the Gemstones are not out of the woods. Righteous Gemstones builds a world that is as deep as it is funny. Kelvin’s (Adam DeVine) muscled God Squad, Judy’s (Edi Patterson) repeated request to make Block “hungry,” and the sheer brilliance of giving the word God another D are all delivered in rapid fire.
“I feel like the Gemstones honestly have more in common with corporations than they do with your average Christian,” McBride recently told FastCompany. But unlike the money driving Succession, faith is not something that can be measured in any quantifiable way. It’s invisible and can seemingly come at any moment. It can be hustled out of you at the exact same time you’re hustling it out of someone else. It’s very easy to see the Gemstones as hypocrites, because they mostly are just that. But this hypocrisy doesn’t mean they lack in faith.
Watching them try to balance hypocrisy with genuine faith is intriguing no matter how much they fail or succeed, but chances are they’re going to fail a lot more.
New episodes of The Righteous Gemstones season 2 premiere on Sundays.