In the book of Matthew, the Bible writes that Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” HBO’s latest comedy from Danny McBride, “The Righteous Gemstones,” looks at a family of televangelists that reap ungodly riches through their ministry. There is a litany of reasons why the titular Gemstone family couldn’t enter the kingdom of God. The show takes great delight in exploring the hypocrisy behind their ministry. Unfortunately, much of the show’s biting satire gets lost behind McBride’s trademark man-child persona. One sees the potential for this set-up. Yet, the moments of inspired insight come less than expected.
The Gemstone family heads one of the most massive mega-church movements in the country. Presided over by family patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), the family operation is looking to go global. Eli’s two sons – Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine) – act as Eli’s helpers in their quest to convert new followers/paying patrons. They all live on the Gemstone family compound in mansions that exude luxury. All of this extravagance comes with just as many lies. Jesse receives a video exposing his cocaine and partying habits that go against the way of the church. The group behind it looks to blackmail the Gemstone family or expose the den of iniquity they all live in.
The show leans into Danny McBride’s anger-ridden persona more than the idea of duplicitous televangelists. This represents the chief misstep of HBO’s latest comedy. McBride huffs and puffs, but never really builds Jesse into a realistic character. His central blackmail storyline is the weakest of the series. As the creator of the show, McBride loves to dwell on childish outbursts. He gives Jesse plenty of runway to vamp into oblivion. It’s a shame that so much time is spent reveling in Jesse’s man-child behavior. His marriage to Amber (Cassidy Freeman), a devout housewife with her own strong opinions, could provide more interesting material to explore. The primary source of their discord comes from the disappearance of their eldest child (Skyler Gisondo). While the family tries to keep a pious front, it would be more interesting to peel back why Jesse’s family became so fractured.
Speaking of fractured family bonds, the more interesting relationship discord happens one generation up from Jesse. John Goodman brings a steely bravado to Eli, perfect for a preacher that knows how to con people on a mass level. In his quest to stamp out the competition, he brings in his wayward brother-in-law, Baby Billy (Walton Goggins). Goggins and Goodman play beautifully off each other. Each exchange comes loaded with decades of shared history. Goggins, in particular, makes for a hilarious frenemy, decked out in old-age makeup, bronzer and a pearly white smile. In partnering up with Baby Billy, Eli understands that one can’t turn their back on the family black sheep. Instead, it works out better to keep them close, so one can always have an eye on their dealings.
“The Righteous Gemstones” bears a strange resemblance to another HBO property. Though “Succession” is more of an acid-tongued drama, “The Righteous Gemstones” mirrors that show contentious, ultra-rich family squabbles. However, “Succession” knows how to dial up the family’s absurdity while keeping the characters and plot grounded. “The Righteous Gemstones” riffs itself off a comic cliff with desperate attempts to be funny. One sees the flop sweats of actors like Adam Devine and Danny McBride desperately wanting every joke line to land. The actors appear to be working harder on punchlines rather than developing actual characters.
Of the Gemstone children, this is why Edi Patterson’s Judy Gemstone emerges as best in show. Judy was the spoiled middle child who gets edged out of participating in the family business based on her gender. Still, Judy lives on the family compound, where her father and brothers keep tabs to make sure her boyfriend doesn’t stay the night. Patterson makes Judy a tragic character while never shying away from how she can be just as petulant as her brothers. In every way, Judy is as qualified and as inept as her fellow Gemstones but is always left out of the conversation. She wants to forge her own life, but can’t resist staying on the family compound in the lap of luxury. These characterizations demonstrate a potential that “The Righteous Gemstones” only explores as an afterthought.
It’s a shame, “The Righteous Gemstones” seldom reaches its fullest potential. Episodes that focus on the building of this family wealth, rather than the threat of blackmail, really work. One episode midway through the season takes place entirely in the 90s, before Aimee-Leigh’s (Jennifer Nettles) death. Here we see the foundations for the Gemstones wealth. Even more importantly, we understand how and why these familial rivalries developed. The ideological differences between Eli and Baby Billy run deep. While the two men once were able to cover their resentments with niceties, Baby Billy’s involvement with the Gemstones children widens the gulfs between the titans.
Furthermore, the sibling dynamic evolves based on these patterns of behavior. When the show gets this good, one realizes the characters could easily make for a great show. Unfortunately, the misguided focus and actors’ delivery clips “The Righteous Gemstones’” wings, keeping it from greatness.