It takes a full 30 minutes for The Righteous Gemstones to take us to church, which is just way too damn long for a series about an ultra-rich family of prosperity preachers. The good news, though, is that it’s worth the wait: Seeing the Gemstones—Eli (John Goodman), Jesse (Danny McBride), and Kelvin (Adam Devine)—command their arena-sized congregation from a lavishly lit stage, gospel choir in tow, is truly divine. Goodman, McBride, and Devine nail the rousing vocal rhythms, flowing physicality, and feel-good patter of a Southern Baptist megachurch. The music is perfect, too, with a mic’d-up soft-rocker in a bowler hat leading the masses in a clap-happy “modern” hymn. McBride even finds comedy in the odd disconnects you’ll find in even the richest Christian communities—despite the church rolling in money, the Gemstones highlight a mission trip to China with a chintzy photo slideshow. Megachurches often exist at the intersection of comfort and cluelessness.
McBride gets that. He grew up watching his mother lead sermons in their Virginia church, and his reverence for the earnestness and vitality of a spiritual community ensures that his new HBO comedy isn’t content to go the easy route of making Christians look like pure dopes. The services feel real, if a touch cartoonish. The glimpses we get of Eli’s old TV show with his late wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), aren’t all that unlike something you’d have stumbled across in the ’80s. Even Kelvin’s “hip” youth group feels calibrated to reality, albeit one situated in the gonzo Stephen Baldwin realm of extreme Christianity—those “Faith Factor” shirts are definitely familiar.
If you’re wondering how something so wholesome emerged from the minds behind Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, know that, yes, the Gemstones are absolutely as awful as you’d expect. Goodman’s Eli is bitter and greedy, caring not a tick that the new “prayer center” he’s opening will deplete the local congregations. Kelvin’s hungry for power, devoting his redemptive resources toward causes important to his dad, such as the daughter of a Chick-Fil-A-type mogul played by Toby Huss. And Jesse, well, Jesse’s a Danny McBride character. He’s bullish, crass, overconfident, selfish, and retaliatory. He’s also hilarious, granted you find McBride funny. Rest assured, this is very much a Danny McBride and Jody Hill joint.
But it’s also something else. If Eastbound & Down was the story of one man’s journey and Vice Principals a friendship-centered two-hander, The Righteous Gemstones is an honest-to-god ensemble piece that’s, as you might expect, more concerned with family than it is any single personality. That proves to be the show’s biggest strength, as McBride and Hill have an excellent ensemble on their hands. As Judy Gemstone, the overlooked daughter of a patriarchal dynasty, Edi Patterson is every bit as grotesque as she was on Vice Principals, delivering a live-wire performance that’s riddled with emotional instability. She’s engaged to B.J. (a hilarious Tim Baltz), a milquetoast goof distrusted by the men of the family for his “progressive” beliefs. Cassidy Freeman shines as Jesse’s wife, Amber, who’s more complicated than her husband would like her to be. And then there’s the truly strange Keefe (Tony Cavalero), a one-time Satanist—peep the “666” tattooed across his pecs—who credits his newfound faith in Christ to Kelvin, with whom he bench-presses and plays video games.
All of them are compelling, and all of them are underserved in the six episodes screened for critics. (The Righteous Gemstones might be the only 30-minute show that would benefit from a longer runtime.) The issue is that, as an actor, McBride remains a bull in a china shop, dominating much of the early action with an oddly gruesome blackmail subplot that distracts more than it resonates. It doesn’t help, either, that Jesse is the least well-defined character, often reading as Kenny Powers with gray sideburns. There’s nods to his supposed piousness, sure—the second episode ends with a prayer—but, despite being the show’s ostensible lead, he’s rarely forced to directly engage with God or his role within the church. Where does that cynicism come from? Where does his faith stand? What does his family really mean to him? Jesse’s behavior rarely feels as if it’s singular to this particular character and community and, as such, he never quite coalesces into a distinct personality. While that’s not an issue with the rest of the show’s cast, it’s a problem, in general, with the storytelling, which suffers mainly from an imbalanced focus. The pieces are all there; they’re just waiting to be arranged in a way that best serves the world. It’s not unlike the first season of Vice Principals in that way.
There is, however, one character who arrives fully formed: Walton Goggins’ Baby Billy Freeman, an uncle to the Gemstone clan who’s brought in to head up the new prayer center. His audacious, white-maned appearance might prompt giggles—and it should—but Baby Billy somehow emerges as the series’ saddest, most complex character. As a child, he and Aimee-Leigh were lauded for their singing and clogging routine, but while she found success with Eli, he’s struggled to make it as a holy entertainer. Goggins, delivering the show’s most indelible performance, gloriously embodies the hyped-up theatricality of a revival preacher, but he also imbues Baby Billy with a searing ruthlessness and a desperation that can only be described as tragic. If there’s a criticism to be made about him, it’s that he pretty much steals the show when he debuts (with a bit of full-frontal nudity) in episode three. And if there’s a reason Baby Billy works so well, it’s that his story is so distinctly rooted in the world of the series. The church and its trappings can feel like set dressing for the other characters, simply adding a bit of surface-level texture to their maneuvering. For Goggins’ Billy, though, it’s everything. The church rests at the center of vision, which results in not just pathos but also the show’s most effective satire.
The good news is that the other characters are getting there, both emotionally and satirically. With each episode, the church, the dimming light binding these characters together, is crystallizing into a symbol of the spiritual void left by Aimee-Leigh’s absence. That emptiness needs to be filled somehow, and The Righteous Gemstones is best when it confronts both that need and the needs that bring anyone into a spiritual community. Jesus probably isn’t the answer—okay, he’s definitely not the answer—but what’s in those walls likely is. So take us to church, boys.
Reviews by Kyle Fowle will run weekly.