I like Danny McBride as a writer and actor, but he does seem to really only have one character, which is the arrogant moron. He plays the role to perfection, but we’ve seen him do it in movies as well as his HBO series Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, and now The Righteous Gemstones. But in The Righteous Gemstones, the act feels thinner than ever, not only because the hypocrisy of the characters is so obvious, but because he’s playing the ensemble’s least interesting role, a character devoid of texture or nuance. The majority of the comedy of The Righteous Gemstones you can gather from the trailer, and the show rarely goes in new or unexpected directions. You’ve got a group of rich televangelists who probably sin more than any of their congregants, and they’re incredibly venal and hypocritical. I guess if you can’t get enough of terrible wealthy families from the news, you can get it here with a smattering of solid jokes, but rarely does The Righteous Gemstones excel past its simple premise.
Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) has built an televangelist empire, but he’s struggling since the loss of the family’s matriarch, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles). Matters are made more complicated by his bickering children Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine). Jesse is an arrogant bully, Judy is vicious but never gets the opportunities she feels she deserves due to her gender, and Kelvin is also eager to prove himself to their stern father. When Jesse gets blackmailed for partying with prostitutes, he ropes in Kelvin to try and help him and hide the blackmail payment from their father. Meanwhile, Eli is dealing with another headache in the form of his brother-in-law Baby Billy (Walton Goggins), who has a rough history with Eli but needs the job of pastoring at the Gemstone’s new prayer center.
HBO sent the first six episodes of The Righteous Gemstones, and for a show that’s stuffed with plotlines, they barely have any momentum. Even if you can get over the fact that all the main characters on this show range from bastards to narcissists, that would at least be acceptable if these people were compelling. But unlike Eastbound & Down or Vice Principals where arrogant characters spar in low-stakes worlds, the Gemstones are rich and powerful, and so there’s no fun juxtaposition in their behavior. These are still small, petty people, but they have genuine power, a power that’s never really explored in any meaningful way.
As rendered in The Righteous Gemstones, the televangelist empire is nothing more than a bunch of entertainers with some Christian branding. The show isn’t really interested in matters of faith, and its observation that faith is used for commerce comes off as pedantic and obvious. Yes, it’s twisted, dark, and ridiculous that the Gemstones, who preach the word of Jesus, have their own amusement park on their massive compound grounds. But the racket that they’re running is also taken at face value so that we can move on to sibling squabbles that just aren’t all that compelling.
When you get to episode five, you get a glimpse at a more interesting show that would have firmly had the conflict on Eli and Baby Billy and offers an opportunity to see how Eli grew his empire. But then we have to return to Jesse being a confident buffoon and the tepid intrigue in his storyline. Judy and Kelvin’s stories aren’t much better, but at least they have some understandable aspirations, whereas Jesse’s story is being dragged out to an obvious conflict that will probably arrive in the final episodes of the season.
There were moments where The Righteous Gemstones got a big laugh out of me and showed that McBride is a unique comic talent who has carved out his own niche. And his direction, alongside regular collaborators David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, really plays ups the gangster aspect of the Gemstones’ lifestyle. The show doesn’t lack style, but it’s shockingly weak on substance given its singular setting. Instead of plunging us into the world of televangelism, The Righteous Gemstones is just another group of wealthy jerks who happily bicker amongst each other when they’re not scraping everyone else off their shoes. I wish I could sing McBride’s praises here, but most of The Righteous Gemstones is a misfire.
Rating: ★★ – Fair