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‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Actually Goes Too Easy on Its Idiot Men

Danny McBride’s latest HBO saga wants to depict a family choking on its own duplicity, but there’s little pathos to support it

Danny McBride, one of the creators of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, was speaking at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, where he was promoting his forthcoming series, The Righteous Gemstones, a comedy about a well-to-do Southern televangelist family that runs an insanely successful megachurch. Those previous series took gleeful aim at a specific kind of entitled, arrogant, pathetic white guy — surely this new HBO program would follow suit? But McBride insisted that he wasn’t interested in targeting these characters because they’re religious — it was because they’re charlatans. 

“The goal isn’t to be a takedown of anything,” he said. “When Hollywood takes on religion, they make the mistake of lampooning one’s beliefs. For us, it’s about lampooning hypocrites — people who present themselves in one way, [and] act differently in another. I don’t think that’s something that’s relevant [only] to the world of religion and televangelism but the world we live in: People who present themselves one way on social media and present themselves in another way.”

When I read those comments, I assumed McBride was being somewhat facetious, soft-pedaling the satire so as not to alienate potential conservative viewers. But now that I’ve seen the first six episodes of The Righteous Gemstones, which debuts Sunday, I realize he was serious. I appreciate the distinction he’s making between true believers and conmen, but I still wish the show drew more blood.

The Righteous Gemstones is more of an ensemble piece than his previous work, and for once the McBride character isn’t necessarily front-and-center. He’s Jesse, the bullheaded son of Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), the family patriarch who built a popular, profitable congregation over decades — all with his adoring wife Aimee-Leigh (country singer Jennifer Nettles) by his side. But since Aimee-Leigh’s recent death, Eli has felt adrift — and as for his children, well, they were long ago spoiled by success. Baby brother Kelvin (Adam Devine) is a whiny brat flailing as a “How do you do, fellow kids?” youth minister, while neurotic sister Judy (Edi Patterson) has constantly felt excluded from the affection Eli shows his sons. (As far as dear ol’ dad is concerned, she’s just a girl.) 

Meanwhile, Jesse, who’s the eldest, has a beautiful, dutiful wife, Amber (Cassidy Freeman), a family… and a penchant for hookers and drugs that he desperately wants hidden from view. After all, it might be bad for the family business if his proclivities became public.

At first, this series looks like it might be an intriguing riff on Breaking Bad and Ozark, with a hint of Coen brothers menace thrown in for good measure. Early on, McBride, who wrote and directed the pilot, introduces the show’s central tension. Some mysterious assailants have obtained a video of Jesse’s hard-partying ways, and they want a million dollars or they’ll ensure it goes viral, bringing down the Gemstones’ reputation in one click. But the planned handoff goes sideways, leading to shocking violence and a crime that can’t be easily covered up.

In 2018, McBride talked about The Righteous Gemstones being the final segment of his “misunderstood angry man trilogy,” which raised expectations that, like he did with Kenny Powers and Neal Gamby, the new show would be a nuanced but brutal evisceration of a certain type of American white male. And there are moments where the series lives up to that promise, especially as we observe Eli’s almost mobster-like influence over the small, close-knit communities that are home to his family’s churches. The Gemstones aren’t just holier-than-thou — they’re richer-than-thou. (The entire family lives on a compound that appears to be the size of a couple golf courses, complete with sophisticated security.) 

The Righteous Gemstones’ reveal of an extortion plot — and its terrible consequences — suggests that McBride, once again collaborating with director/producers Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, will underline the connection between this family’s false piety and their darker impulses over subsequent episodes. Instead, the show goes in other directions, returning to the blackmail scheme but also exploring other textures and characters. I can’t reveal precisely what happens, but I can say that, so far, I feel a little shortchanged by the experience.

Perhaps televangelists are an easy satirical target, but I’d argue that they’re actually more pernicious than the people McBride ridiculed in his previous series. Fading athletes and unscrupulous school administrators may be a pox, but they don’t have the power to affect pockets of society the way a church can. Being raised Catholic, I saw firsthand how a community came together to celebrate and share like-minded beliefs. It’s a powerful thing — beautiful, even — but it can be wielded in self-serving ways, like when some Catholic bishops, in 2004, pushed to refuse giving Communion to then-presidential candidate John Kerry because of his pro-choice stance. 

A quick Google News search can find multiple stories of religious leaders abusing their wealth and authority, often preying on the very people who look to them for moral guidance. And that’s to say nothing of the regressive cultural views that some religions continue to espouse — or the ways that some who claim to be religious try to inflict their bigoted beliefs on the rest of us. I often think of Max von Sydow’s line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

McBride isn’t unaware of these realties. In recent interviews, he’s talked about his own upbringing as a Baptist — and how he saw his local church turn on his mother after his parents got divorced. (“You’d think it’d be a time where the church would try to help her out,” he said. “Instead we found the exact opposite thing — it was people whispering behind our family’s back and just being judgmental on my mom.”) And at its best, The Righteous Gemstones pinpoints that hypocrisy — how charismatic holy men strip followers of their money while hocking a brand of affluent godliness that puts people like the Gemstones on a pedestal. Kenny Powers wanted to be a star, but Eli truly is, and while the show is sly about never indicating whether his faith is real or a scam — at least not through the first six episodes — he and his children’s love of their power flirts with violating a few of the seven deadly sins.

And yet, the show resists the urge to stick the dagger in. Normally, it would be commendable that a TV series sought to humanize its characters, attacking our prejudices and making us see people who are different than us in three dimensions. But The Righteous Gemstones feels like it’s pulling its punches, tending toward an amusing but somewhat soap-y treatment of the Gemstone kids and their backstory. One episode is a prolonged flashback to Eli’s early days as a minister, which helps establish his long-held contempt for Aimee-Leigh’s no-account brother Baby Billy (Vice Principals costar Walton Goggins), while another hints at how Judy will begin to find her footing in a family that demeans her. There’s a lot going on, but so far not a lot of anything particularly compelling.

But moreover, it’s too affectionate toward its milieu. What made McBride’s previous shows sting was how they tapped into something uncomfortably recognizable about angry, privileged men — their misplaced sense of entitlement, their base instincts, their well-honed persecution complex. We could pretend we weren’t those guys, but deep down we feared we might be. At this early stage, the new series has more of an ambitious sweep, juggling plot strands and tones, but it’s a little too diffuse to fully embrace. The Righteous Gemstones wants to depict a family choking on its own duplicity, but there’s little rage in that depiction — the Gemstones don’t inspire our disgust or our fascination.

Ultimately, that’s what is so different between this show and McBride’s previous programs. He’s made a career out of being courageous in his assault on men behaving badly. But with The Righteous Gemstones, his comedic instincts don’t seem as divinely inspired.

Here are three other takeaways from The Righteous Gemstones

#1. Please enjoy this short history of clogging.

When they were younger, The Righteous Gemstones’ Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy would perform together, which included them doing clogging numbers. We see a little clogging on the show, both in flashbacks and in the present, which made me wonder: Wait, so is this different than tap? I’d done tap as a kid in a dance studio, while I always associated clogging with hoedowns and county fairs. So I decided to do some research.

When clogging began in America, it was a folk dance brought to the U.S. by European settlers from places like England and Ireland. Tap morphed out of clogging: African slaves adopted percussive dance as a form of entertainment, and after the Civil War it was featured in vaudeville performances and minstrel shows. Speaking very broadly, clogging remained a rural folk/bluegrass tradition, while tap was viewed as a more artistic and sophisticated form of dance.

Which isn’t to say that clogging doesn’t require finesse and skill. In 1997, Clogging Champions of America was formed, hoping to encourage competition among cloggers, either in groups or solo performers. Modern clogging is as jazzy as tap, but the main difference remains the leg kicks and swings that cloggers still incorporate, which will remind viewers of country line dancing.

That downhome quality seems central to clogging — it’s a proud blast of Americana — while tap has embraced a poetic, balletic athleticism. Tellingly, when characters clog in The Righteous Gemstones, it’s meant to be a little corny and old-fashioned. But it’s clear how passionate they are about their dancing. Indeed, it might be the one thing any Gemstone sincerely loves other than money. 

#2. I have an Adam Devine allergy.

As a film critic, I try hard not to have actors I dislike. My feeling is that, even if a particular performer rubs me the wrong way, I need to at least recognize that they must do something worthwhile that makes other viewers enjoy them on screen. If anything, I feel like my job is to try to understand what that “thing” is — even if it doesn’t work for me personally.

 I say all this because, for as long as I can remember, I have detested the very image of Adam Devine. Workaholics? I couldn’t watch the show simply because his face appeared in it. The Pitch Perfect movies? He was easily the worst part. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates? Insufferable. Those Allstate ads? Hate ‘em.

This means I’ve spent many years trying to understand precisely what in god’s name other people like about him. As far as I can tell, they dig his goofiness and ironic frat-boy posturing. But for me, he projects an irritating energy that throws off any scene he’s in. He makes me noticeably, unreasonably angry when he shows up.

I knew going into The Righteous Gemstones that he played one of the sons, and I was hopeful that his smarmy persona would work well on a show about insincere televangelists. And I tried, I really did, to get onto his wavelength, but once again, I was left frustrated. As Kelvin, he sports the same cutesy tics and dumb-guy obliviousness that are always so leaden in his performances — it’s his shtick and he’s sticking to it. I simply, biologically, do not get his appeal. I’m starting to think I never will.

#3. Want a good recent movie about faith? Try ‘Come Sunday.’

The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t profess to be about any specific megachurch minister, which allows the show some nice creative license in terms of how it conceives Eli and his brood. But while watching the series, I thought of a Netflix film that came out last year that wrestles with faith and is based on a true story. I agree with McBride that Hollywood rarely does a good job in its handling of religion. But you might want to give Come Sunday a try.

The drama, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, tells the story of Carlton Pearson, a beloved Oklahoma minister who risked his status by voicing a controversial opinion: Even those who didn’t believe in God will enter into Heaven. Pearson’s contention was met with widespread criticism, leading to his being shunned by church leaders, who had long taught that nonbelievers would go to Hell for their lack of faith.

Ejiofor has been excellent in everything from Dirty Pretty Things to 12 Years a Slave, and he’s thoroughly persuasive as a humble, charming minister who can easily command a crowd’s attention. But when Pearson has his change of heart, the Oscar-nominated actor makes you feel how tormented the character is — how much he understands that his new position will alienate all those around him. 

Obviously, Come Sunday can’t offer any answer to whether Pearson is right — I guess we’ll find out when we die, huh? — but the movie is about something more than that. Director Joshua Marston examines the mystery of faith, and how even those who are devoutly religious can feel uncertain, looking for answers from a silent God in a confusing world. 

Come Sunday is respectful of religion though also attuned to the challenges preachers face in terms of keeping up their attendance numbers and making sure the collection plate is full — it digs into the business of religion in ways few films ever do. As you might imagine, the movie isn’t nearly as funny as The Righteous Gemstones, but it’s far more profound, thought-provoking and moving.