Adam DeVine, Danny McBride, and John Goodman
Photo: Fred Norris (HBO)
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The previous work from the team of Danny McBride and Jody Hill is perhaps best known for just how divisive it is. The comedy, pitch-black with no punches pulled, attempts a tonal high-wire act; balancing the anger and cruelty of its characters with more purposefully human moments, which isn’t for everyone. Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals are difficult to watch, and they’re meant to be, and that means where some see pointless aggression and male chauvinism—McBride has called this trio of shows, which now includes The Righteous Gemstones, his “misunderstood angry man trilogy”—others see comedy acting as an escape valve for a toxic culture, a parody of outsized behavior masquerading as strength and power.

If either Eastbound & Down or Vice Principals were immediately off-putting for some, The Righteous Gemstones would seem a more fitting way to enter McBride’s loud, chaotic universe. It’s not nearly as purposefully unpleasant, as the season premiere, “The Righteous Gemstones,” mines more comedy out of strange family dynamics than it does cruel competition or toeing the line of what’s politically correct. There’s plenty of room for the show to go down that road at some point, but it’s remarkable how tame “The Righteous Gemstones” is compared to the series premieres of McBride’s past work.

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Tame is a relative term, of course. There’s still plenty of crude humor here—it’s also an hour-long show, shifting away from the half-hour format that, arguably, kept Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals grounded by necessitating economical storytelling. There’s an incest joke early on, and plenty of punchlines involving dicks. But this is hardly the punishing humor that made Vice Principals a masterpiece of black comedy. Rather, “The Righteous Gemstones” feels like a more fine-tuned approach, one that’s perhaps less likely to dabble in the surrealism of Vice Principals and instead tell a more streamlined story...though one built on a foundation of curse words and childish antics.

The above paragraph might make it sound like this is McBride and company growing old and allowing their nastier impulses to die down, but that’s hardly the case. Rather, “The Righteous Gemstones” feels like the group operating at the top of their craft, balancing their balls-to-the-wall humor with pointed critiques and family drama in a way that feels more confident, more solidly built.

The premiere sets up a few threads: the Gemstones, a family of wildly successful megachurch preachers, have just returned from a mission trip to China. Now, they’re on their way to expanding their empire, moving in on some small towns. Patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) keeps the business steady while mourning his late wife, and while his sons Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine) jockey for his affection and his money. There’s a Gemstone sister too (the always hilarious Edi Patterson), but because this is a staunch religious family, she’s an outcast, a woman meant to serve rather than lead.

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Everything is looking up for the Gemstones, who’ve successfully monetized faith and personhood and identity, the last available resources in a world diminished by capitalism. Then, Jesse is blackmailed with a video that shows him snorting coke at a party with naked men and women in the background. For $1 million, Jesse can obtain the video from the blackmailers, so he enlists Kelvin to help him out. When things go off the rails, and Judy (Patterson) gets involved too, the bodies start to pile up, and the premiere gets its first dose of chaos right at the end. The handoff is a mess, Jesse puffs up his chest, and he runs over the two men blackmailing him while making off with the video and the money. It’s a darkly hilarious cliffhanger.

That storyline is fun, but the real appeal of “The Righteous Gemstones” is the family drama. The in-fighting at the dinner table; the sibling rivalries; the hilarious indictment of back-patting charity work; the hypocrisy at the very core of the Gemstones and the way they lead their lives. It’s all a source of laughs and tension without tipping into outright bombast. The premiere operates a lot like an absurd, punchline-centric version of Succession, where the family dynamic and the sheer outsized nature of the universe lend the show equal parts gravitas and absurdity.

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“The Righteous Gemstones” is a near-perfect setup for the series. It establishes the uneasy relationships at the heart of the family while also teeing up a couple mysteries for later on. It dabbles in a critique of the empty religious despotism that’s corroding communities in parts of America while leaving room for something more scathing in future episodes. It’s clear, concise, and funny as hell, and worth a trip to the altar every Sunday.

Stray observations

  • At the risk of sounding like a religious zealot, I’d like to confidently say that John Goodman is a god and I love when he’s on my screen.
  • Judy: “Eat my ass.” Kelvin: “Yeah right. That’d be incest, and that is disgusting.”
  • “Yeah, I hope he dies too, baby.”
  • I’m definitely fantasy booking a late-season showdown between John Goodman and Dermot Mulroney.
  • Judy, trying her best to defend the husband everybody hates: “He’s an interesting-ass white boy!”
  • “I know your sad cry, there’s way more moaning.”
  • “It’s a sculpture! And I got a good price because the dick is weird.”

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