Danny McBride’s ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Shines a Satirical Light on Christian Hypocrisy
HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones” is an incisive and insightful satire of snake-oil televangelists and their sycophants. It’s strength is that it doesn’t make fun of religion, or its believers, so much as the hypocrites who prey on the vulnerable. John Goodman stars as patriarch Eli Gemstone, a ruthless widower and preacher who has built a dynasty based on the word of God, while his three adult children, Jesse (Danny McBride), Kelvin (Adam DeVine), and Judy (Edi Patterson), each struggle to break out of the roles they’ve been cast in.
Ridiculously wealthy, they all live in separate houses on an enormous estate and even have their own theme park. Eli still mourns his dead wife, Aimee-Leigh, a Christian singer whose tombstone reads, “She loved Jesus & laughter.” Jesse finds himself vulnerable to a blackmailer, while Kelvin is still trying to move into adulthood, his house papered with posters like Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1994 sci-fi action thriller, “Timecop,” and populated with an upright video arcade version of “Double Dragon.” His best friend is a former Satan worshipper with a 666 tattoo on his chest who has accepted Jesus Christ into his life even as he pines for Kelvin. And Judy struggles to be taken seriously as the men continue to put her in “her place” simply because she’s a woman. As they open a new church inside a shopping mall, the family is threatened by a group of local pastors who fear the family will run them out of their own hometown, while blackmail, extortion, bribery, adultery, and suppressed homosexuality threaten the Gemstones’ reputation and empire.
The comedy is dark, the satire is vicious, and the characterizations are tight, giving depth to the dysfunctional family and keeping them fresh as opposed to stereotypes. Each of the characters have secrets, and they aren’t anywhere near as holy as they like to think they are. The fact that they can’t see what hypocrites they are makes them feel real and multi-faceted.
Every villain is the hero of his or her own story, and this is true for each of the Gemstones. McBride, who created the series and wrote or co-wrote all nine episodes of the first season, is stronger than he’s ever been. He brings nuance to Jesse, likely the most conflicted of the characters, establishing him in outlandish scenarios with pathos and humor. Patterson is heartbreaking as she emasculates her husband, BJ (Tim Baltz), and tries to one-up her brothers. And Goodman exhibits a world-weariness that comes from overseeing the religious operation he intended to share with his wife.
“The Righteous Gemstones” often plays like a crime thriller with the central family being preachers rather than criminals. Their self-righteousness is laughable, almost to the point of being absurd, but it always remains grounded, which is what makes it particularly effective. The series is extremely relevant in today’s society with the religious right flexing its muscle in perhaps unprecedented ways. And what makes it land so solidly is McBride’s scripts. He humanizes each of the characters while making them distinct and keeps them quirky without making them so broad that they are caricatures. The world they inhabit could be any town in the United States, and that makes the Gemstones both relatable and terrifying.
“The Righteous Gemstones” premieres Aug. 18 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.