McBride Strikes Gold with The Righteous Gemstones
March 10, 2020 | Written by Tara Powell, Illustrations by Angela Lin
Danny McBride hits the mark again with his third and newest HBO series The Righteous Gemstones, a twisted family sitcom set in the flamboyant world of Southern televangelism. The Gemstone family defines the role of religion in American capitalism and asks the question, “What would capitalist Jesus do?” The wealth, fame, and power that hails from their growing franchise of megachurches is (poorly) hidden underneath the mission to spread God’s message.
Illustrations by Angela Lin
After the matriarch of the family dies, Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) inherits the sole responsibility of controlling his three adult children: Jesse (Danny McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine). The family is left to move on without the mother’s powerful spirit that once bound them together and preserved some sincerity of their religious devotion. Instead, they push forward with their malleable morals wrapped in wealth, fame, and the self-proclaimed will of God.
From the very beginning of the first episode, it’s clear the dysfunctional family has converted religious worship into ostentatious wealth. The show opens with a 24-hour baptism marathon conducted by the Gemstone men at a waterpark in China, but it goes awry when the wave pool turns on, along with fist-bumping EDM music and flashing lights. The men of the Gemstone family return to the women at their South Carolina headquarters on their trio of private jets, aptly named The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. While televangelism is a focus of the show, McBride was deliberate not to poke fun at religion. Rather, televangelism is the platform on which hypocrisy arises and the characters’ foolishness flourishes.
The two primary plotlines of the show set out to challenge the “righteousness” of the Gemstone family and display the hypocrisy of their religious empire. The first plotline explores the contradiction in acting against the very morals they preach. Eli focuses his attention on expanding the megachurch empire and revamps an old Sears building into a fully equipped church. However, a rural pastor challenges Eli’s expansion into his town where religious needs are met, fearing his congregation will flock to the flashy new church. Eli sees the challenge as a threat to his wife’s memory and plots to squash the small-time pastor. Instead of “loving thy neighbor,” Eli acts out of his own grief and desire for financial success. The other plotline continues the exploration of empty religious talk. Jesse Gemstone is being blackmailed by mysterious people in devil masks, with an illicit video of him and his church friends partying — which threatens his reputation as a preacher, son, husband, and father. Jesse solicits the help of his siblings to keep up the impression that their family is indeed righteous.
In this series and in his two other HBO works, McBride challenges the common custom to portray likeable characters. The facts point to disliking the Gemstones: they are greedy, corrupt, and stuck in doctrines of toxic masculinity, misogyny, and racism. But a unique ability of the series is making these outrageous and outlandish comments but somehow evoking empathy. Even the most foolish characters are simply humans with insecurities. Eli is a pastor who more resembles a greedy businessman, but the viewer discovers his softer side as a grieving widower, not sure how to move forward without his partner. Jesse is a frustrated and aggressively masculine man who feels the pressure as the first born son to be at the top — but internally he fears not being a good enough father, husband, and son. Judy comes across as selfish and hungry for fame and power, but in actuality, she is frustrated that she is treated differently from her brothers. And Kelvin, the youngest Gemstone, plays the annoyingly hip and trendy youth pastor that has it all together, but he is trying to find his place in the Gemstone family amidst his loneliness without his mother’s support. The characters' dual portrayals explore humanity's underbelly of vulnerabilities that so many of us try to hide, including the Gemstones. Doing so enhances the comedy by lacing foolishness with truth.
While the show’s humor is foolish and ridiculous, it is carried by depicting the truth of human relationships and insecurities. The characters navigate their family relationships while they grapple with the loss of a loved one, the impossible pressure placed on portraying a consistent appearance, and the quest to find a purpose in life. The immaturity between Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin conveys the hilarious truth of how regressive a sibling dynamic can be: they know how to hit the raw spots of each other’s deepest insecurities. The humor highlights the characters’ vulnerabilities that are of course heightened for the purpose of entertainment, but are recognizable as an exaggeration of a genuine truth.
Just three weeks into the first season, HBO renewed The Righteous Gemstones for a second season. While there is no official release date yet, we can be sure to expect another season of hilariously grotesque Misbehavin’ with moments of truth and twisted sincerity from the Gemstone family.