Pay to pray
The Righteous Gemstones and the power of positive grifting
Adam Devine, Danny McBride and John Goodman in The Righteous Gemstones
Danny McBride sure has a type. And it’s weird scoundrels.
With Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals and a truckload of other comedy writing, acting, directing and producing credits going back to the early aughts, nobody in Hollywood has explored the vast interiority of the clumsy grifter, the self-destructive liar, the heterosexual white guy loser or the thin-skinned incompetent more thoroughly than McBride. The man just keeps pulling them, like iron-forged swords, out the fires of late-stage American capitalism to lay waste to HBO viewers’ senses of decorum, civility and good taste.
With McBride’s latest effort, The Righteous Gemstones, he’s proven a new smithing technique to bend his scoundrels into even funnier and more freakish shapes, one that Tulsans are more than familiar with: old time religion.
Enter Eli Gemstone (John Goodman, who relishes every second of this performance), patriarch and CEO of the evangelical Gemstone family brand, whose empire of aspirational Sunday services, Christian self-help volumes, music publishing royalties and positive touring spectacles is as vast as it is profitable. Each week his parishioners buy Gemstone-branded coffee (“Holy Grounds”) on their way into a Gemstone Prayer Center to hear a Gemstone sermon before buying a Gemstone-authored book—and, of course, leaving a healthy donation on their way out.
“All across America capitalism’s crumbling, that’s where we step up,” Eli’s youngest son Kelvin declares on his way to the Gemstones’ latest acquisition: a former mall department store which they converted into a stage for Sunday services.
It’s perhaps a parody of a particularly crass, for-profit brand of televangelical Christianity, but certainly not a strong enough exaggeration on reality to qualify as satire. If you pulled the Gemstone stickers off these products, it’d be difficult to discern them from, say, a Life.Church, Joel Osteen, Liberty University, Hillsong or Oral Roberts’ family venture. But on its own, Gemstones isn’t a particularly meaningful indictment of Christianity.
Instead, read it as you would a Jim Thompson novel. Its hypocrisy only serves as window dressing for the show’s real delights, which are found in McBride’s scoundrels and how their oafishness and self-delusion compound around them into feedback loops that grow larger and richer with each episode. Eli’s children Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson) and Kelvin Gemstone (Adam Devine) nitpick each other apart and vie for their dad’s attention as they manage the family business, which just hasn’t been the same since the passing of matriarch Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles).
The eldest Gemstone son Jesse is vintage Oral Roberts in both style and substance: He sports Italian suits, ‘70s sideburns and poses for all-white photoshoots with his wife and kids. McBride hangs the main plot for the show’s first season on slimy Jesse, whose secret vices threaten to undo the family’s pristine public image when a masked extortioner reveals the existence of a video of him and his pals snorting cocaine with prostitutes in an Atlanta hotel room.
Next up is sister Judy, left intensely neurotic from years growing up the only woman in an aggressively patriarchal family. Dimwitted and apparently talentless, Judy struggles to impress her father by allying with a degenerate uncle (more on him in a minute) and acts out sexually like an entitled angry man, shouting “Gimme that ass!” in a moment of backstage desire for her long-suffering optometrist boyfriend B.J. (Tim Baltz). She apologizes for a late-season rift with B.J. by stomping into the grocery store where he works, explaining “I got caught up in my church songs career.”
The youngest Gemstone sibling, Kelvin specializes in youth ministry where he wins young souls to Christ with Fortnite dances, True Religion jeans and assistance from his live-in friend and former Satanist, Keefe (an incredibly funny understated comic performance from newcomer Tony Cavalero, who nearly killed me dead in my own living room delivering the line “I’m not here for pleasures.”) While his sister affects a much more stately presentation and his brother cosplays as a young Jim Bakker, Kelvin dresses like today’s modern Carl Lentz-type hypepriests.
Interloping on the Gemstone kids’ various schemes to impress their father is their Uncle “Baby” Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins, just fucking nailing a scumbag performance for the ages), a former child star desperate to cash in decades later on the Collins Kids-like hit “Misbehavin’” he first recorded with his sister Aimee-Leigh. It should be noted that “Misbehavin’” genuinely slaps, an earworm hillbilly hit McBride claimed to write with Patterson that wouldn’t sound out of place before, say, an Alan Jackson concert. “Our fanbase is rapidly aging, Aimee-Leigh,” Uncle Billy cries desperately in a flashback episode. “We got the bluehair crowd. They won’t last forever!”
HBO announced last month that it would pick the show up for a second season, giving McBride time and space to introduce new characters to the extended Gemstones universe. God willing, they’re as deranged as this lot.