Replacing boardrooms with megachurches, private planes and limousines with steer horn-adorned Cadillacs and glitzy party buses, and dapper suits and designer dresses with leopard-print shoes and white cowboy hats, The Righteous Gemstones is a lunatic Southern televangelist variation on Succession.
Returning to HBO for its second season on Jan. 9, Danny McBride’s alternately absurdist and heartfelt skewering of those who peddle religion for profit is a kindred spirit to the cable network’s dramatic powerhouse, rife with toxic masculine dysfunction and hostile tensions between entitled sons who want to inherit their fathers’ empires (and earn their love) while simultaneously establishing their own independence. In the same vein as McBride’s Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, it’s a portrait of pathetically mad, narcissistic men and the striving women who can’t resist them, and in its latest run, it ups the ante in almost every respect.
As evidenced by its second season’s opening scene, The Righteous Gemstones also hasn’t lost its fondness for full-frontal nudity, and the fact that its initial shot of a penis is accompanied by someone remarking, “Hey, that’s a nice dick!” shows that it takes great pleasure in its puerility. Such glee is part of the fun of McBride’s show, which (produced and directed by long-time collaborators David Gordon Green and Jody Hill) exhibits an effusive desire to do the craziest thing possible at any given moment. That pertains to the plethora of funny plot lines that course through this nine-episode tale, but it’s also true of its dialogue, which is overflowing with profane insults that seem to have been concocted by legitimately demented individuals. Which, of course, is the case, at least fictionally speaking, since the Gemstones and their many friends and enemies are all cut from a similar bonkers cloth.
A brief premiere-episode prologue reveals that Gemstone patriarch Eli (John Goodman) first made a living as a Memphis wrestler known as the Maniac Kid, and that in his off hours he used to break fingers for his promoter boss Glendon (Wayne Duvall) with the aid of that man’s son Junior. In the present, Junior (now played by Eric Roberts with snake-oil salesman charm) reappears in Eli’s life and promptly reignites his more limb-snapping violent side, thereby fortifying his sense of strength and making him ditch any thoughts about handing the keys of his kingdom over to his kids. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with his eldest son Jesse (McBride), who along with loyally scheming wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) is intent on seizing control of the family’s ministry. To show that he’s worthy, Jesse cements a partnership with Texas televangelist Lyle Lissons (Eric André) to construct a tropical Christian resort dubbed Zion’s Landing. The problem is, he needs $10 million to do that, and he doesn’t have the cash, and he can’t convince his dad to lend it to him, since he claimed he was handling this venture on his own.
As a buffoon who’s more unhinged and less talented than his father, Jesse’s dilemma is that he wants to put Eli out to pasture and yet desperately needs his help and covets his approval, and that push-pull is the lifeblood of The Righteous Gemstones, whose new narrative is rife with additional parental-progeny discord. Jesse’s brother Kelvin (Adam Devine) is still trying to prove his manhood to Eli through rampantly homoerotic means, this time via a God Squad of hyper-muscular minions who are overseen by his weirdo reformed-Satanist boy-toy BFF Keefe (Tony Cavalero). Sister Judy (Edi Patterson) falls into her own nurturing dynamic with Tiffany (Valyn Hall), the pregnant hillbilly wife of Baby Billy (Walton Goggins, stealing every scene), who himself has a dark history with paternal abandonment. Junior is long estranged from his abusive pop Glendon. And like Jesse, Lyle is a “first-born” who shoved his own father out of the way to take over his religious organization.
Everyone in The Righteous Gemstones has got a nasty daddy who won’t provide requisite affection and assistance, thus engendering self-loathing, bitterness and psychotic behavior—and when that’s not the case, the show is positing its characters as simply outright clowns hung up on their manliness. Nowhere is the series’ lampooning of macho attitudes funnier than with Judy’s wishy-washy husband BJ (Tim Baltz), whose name is an ironic comment on his emasculated nature, and who’s eager to demonstrate his loyalty to the Gemstone clan by being baptized against the wishes of his own agnostic family. That culminates in a lavish ceremony and party in which BJ wears what may be the most amusingly outlandish outfit in recent memory, and it reinforces the notion that he’s the Tom Wambsgans of this clan, if Tom were a laughably effeminate idiot obsessed with expressing his Y-chromosomal value at the same time that he makes sure to speak and act in gender-respectful terms.
“BJ wears what may be the most amusingly outlandish outfit in recent memory… he’s the Tom Wambsgans of this clan, if Tom were a laughably effeminate idiot obsessed with expressing his Y-chromosomal value at the same time that he makes sure to speak and act in gender-respectful terms.”
The appearance of nosy New York reporter Thaniel (Jason Schwartzman) is a catalyst for even more chaos, although The Righteous Gemstones really thrives thanks to its litany of choice one-liners; repeating any of them here would be anticlimactic, since the beauty of McBride, Green and Hill’s small-screen triumph is the way in which it couches its over-the-top exclamations in fittingly lewd and preposterous scenarios. McBride’s Jesse is the corrupt soul of these proceedings, his arrogant greed and ambition almost as great as his pathetic longing for validation from both his father and his peers (at whom he sneers). He’s complemented by one of the best casts in television, with Patterson in particular proving more than willing to match her male counterparts in the me-first vulgarity department. Her Judy is as fearsomely disturbed as her fellow dick-swingers, which makes her bond with BJ often the show’s finest source of comedy.
The Gemstones may be horrid people but The Righteous Gemstones nonetheless has empathy for their pitifulness, treating them less as hateful villains than as jokey morons driven and/or bred to stomp on the competition in order to get what they want, and to use Christ (and the goodness of the devout) as a means to their own ends. It’s hard to imagine pious Americans—the sort who attend arenas each Sunday to hear the word of God, or watch Joel Osteen and his ilk on TV preaching to the masses—taking kindly to this depiction of the church, which is anything but flattering. That said, even they might find some pleasure in McBride and company’s brand of unbridled humor, in which everyone is a walking punchline destined to eventually receive a punch—or, as in the season’s most hilariously juvenile bit, a blast of baby puke in the face.