Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green have a sixth sense when it comes to the American climate. Their two previous projects for HBO, Eastbound & Down, about a burnt-out, blowhard baseball player who believed he was owed better in life, and Vice Principals, about two incompetent white men who believe themselves entitled to a position a black woman has earned, have only felt more and more prescient as time has passed.
Their latest series, the marvelous The Righteous Gemstones, which premieres Sunday, Aug. 18 at 10pm, feels just as on the nose, if also a slight reversal from the usual formula. The Gemstones are a family of famous televangelists — in other words, unlike Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers or Vice Principals’ Neal Gamby, they’re not struggling to make their way up the ladder, and don’t engender much sympathy given their seeming utter lack of hardship. With the exception of the Gemstone patriarch, Eli (John Goodman), they were born at the top, and are doing their best to maintain that status, even if it means running other preachers out of town or (quite literally) getting their hands dirty.
The eldest Gemstones son Jesse’s (McBride) misfortunes set the series into motion, as a video of Jesse partying becomes blackmail material in the hands of a few folks who believe the family is full of hypocrites. Of course, they’re not wrong; the Gemstones are more concerned with the wealth brought in by their megachurches than what they’re preaching. Jesse may be the most hedonistic of the lot, but his siblings aren’t much better off. Kelvin (Adam Devine), who heads the Gemstones’ youth ministry efforts, is a petty poser, and Judy (Edi Patterson), who is relegated to being a glorified secretary thanks to the church’s (and her family’s) sexism, takes out her frustrations by skimming a little off the top.
Only Eli seems to have a handle on faith, having built the Gemstone empire from scratch, but it’s clear that the passing of his wife, Aimee-Leigh (country star Jennifer Nettles), was also the departure of the family’s moral compass. Greed is a given for the Gemstone children, but for Eli, it’s still something to be fought. That intersection of faith and money, and the idea of the corporatization of faith, serves as a fascinating backdrop to the Gemstone story, and strengthens the series’ broader focus on the family’s dynamics. As with Succession, HBO’s other series about a family empire with a ruthless, aging patriarch, it’s clear that Eli isn’t terribly impressed by his children, but, unlike Logan Roy, his love for them is much more palpable, and lends a bitter edge to the laughter their antics may provoke.
The Righteous Gemstones’ dramatic edge is more pronounced than Jesse’s giant mutton chops and Kelvin’s Bieber-esque wardrobe might immediately suggest. The ridiculous — a mass baptism thrown into chaos when the waves are turned on in the pool — is counterbalanced by the vacuum that Aimee-Leigh’s passing has clearly left in the characters’ lives, as well as the sense that none of them quite know how to express themselves in a genuine way. The question of whether or not a gesture is being made out of sincerity or to wheedle something out of the other person constantly hangs over the show.
It’s made bearable rather than insufferable by operating a little like an advent calendar, with each episode opening a few more windows into the lives of each of these characters. The most poignant of the episodes sent out for review is set entirely in flashback prior to Aimee-Leigh’s death, with the uneasy rapport between the young Aimee-Leigh, Eli, and Baby Billy — and its snowballing effect upon Jesse, Judy, and the then-unborn Kelvin — helping to flesh out what’s happening in the show’s present timeline.
Big swings like the flashback are neatly complemented by smaller and stranger character moments — Judy asking Eli to slap her too after he slaps Jesse and Kelvin, protesting that she’s a Gemstone, too; Kelvin’s best friend and former Satan worshipper Keefe (Tony Cavalero), who says, “Night night,” instead of goodbye in the middle of the day; the Gemstones referring to the less well-off as “poverty people.” (There are other, more pointed details, too, like Jesse’s wife, played wonderfully by Cassidy Freeman, taking pride in how quickly and accurately she can shoot a gun.)
It’s all evidence that there’s a bigger picture at play than the one put into motion by Jesse’s blackmailers. As with Vice Principals, the full scope of it takes a little while to become clear, but the ride there is not to be missed. It’s First Reformed crossed with Succession as filtered through McBride, Hill, and Green’s sensibilities, as cutting as it is funny, and a perfect heir to Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals’ mantle.