‘The Righteous Gemstones’: Past Sins and Family Ambitions Make for a Divine Second Season
The second coming of HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones” continues its brilliantly funny look at, how in America, even religion is quite literally business as usual. The setting is a successful megachurch in the south, but it could easily be any cutthroat corporate office. Even more curiously effective is how the Gemstone family generates both morbid curiosity and dashes of sympathy because of their background. Being evangelical Christians gives them a bizarre combination of friendliness and vicious greed. They can be both debauched and likable. Some of that likeability suffers some deep cracks in this scorching, long overdue second season where the Gemstones start fighting over their dad’s throne like ravenous hyenas.
Before catching up with the Gemstones as they stand, the season opens in the past, where we catch a glimpse of young Eli Gemstone in 1960s Memphis, where he was a wrestler known as the Maniac Kid. His nickname was also well suited for his side gig as an enforcer for his promoter, including breaking the thumbs of victims with debts. In the present Eli (John Goodman), now the famous pastor of the Gemstone Salvation Center is facing some new pressure from son and aspiring heir Jesse (Danny McBride). Eli makes it perfectly clear he has no plans to retire just yet. Along with equally ambitious wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman), Jesse decides to try and claim his own stake by connecting with a flashy megachurch preacher from the West Coast, Lyle Lissons (Eric André), who plans to open a massive Christian resort. The idea has little appeal to Eli, who encourages Jesse to jump into the deal with his own money. Then, someone from Eli’s distant past arrives, Junior (Eric Roberts), who doesn’t believe Eli’s reputation as a respected minister has totally killed the violent thug unleashed in their youth. Junior’s presence increases an acute threat level since journalist Thaniel (Jason Schwartzman) continues a crusade to expose evangelical corruption, with his sights set on the Gemstones.
Jesse’s dashed hopes and the arrival of Junior start off two parallel story threads that grow and never stop delivering this season. Danny McBride is still serving as the main producer, with David Gordon Green (making up for his recent “Halloween Kills”) and Jody Hill directing. They again find a strong combination of humor and edginess for what is both cutting American satire and a look inside a powerful yet insular culture. Evangelical Christianity is its own culture and the megachurch world is a religious mirror image of consumerism and show business. McBride and the writers have studied the terrain well. You can see it in the hilariously bombastic, but all too accurate moments this season when Lissons opens a Sunday service with a rock show, complete with Benny Hinn-style smack downs of audience members receiving the holy spirit. When raunchy Judy Gemstone (Edi Patterson) finally gets husband BJ (Tim Baltz) to be baptized, the ceremony is worthy of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical as BJ walks towards Eli in a grand, cross-shaped baptismal pool. The writing is so sharp that something that could seem completely absurd, like the muscle men Christian group led by Kelvin Gemstone (Adam Devine), works as quirky, engaging riffs on evangelical culture. Kelvin’s right hand with the snarling, cultish muscle group, Keefe (Tony Cavalero), is obviously in love with him, but it is something that dare not speak its name in a Christ-serving enterprise. Kirk Cameron will certainly not approve.
At the heart of the drama in “The Righteous Gemstones” is how this season forces the family to face uncomfortable truths. Junior is a living reminder of what Eli once was and in early episodes it does seem like he manages to bring out the hidden thug inside the preacher. They square off with a bully outside a restaurant parking lot and Junior howls with glee when Eli breaks the fool’s thumbs. It’s also a way of challenging our perceptions as other developments take place. When someone kills a potential journalistic threat to the Gemstones, could it have been a newly deranged Eli? In private Eli looks very sincere when he assures Junior he really did change his ways when his late wife brought him to Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesse and his siblings need to realize their sense of entitlement stems solely from having a dad who already built an empire they leech from. When Eli refuses to jump into Lisson’s getaway/theme park idea, Jesse is almost left helpless. Kelvin suffers two major embarrassments, first when Eli forces him to cancel a trip with his muscled brothers to Israel and brutal fight ensues between father and son, and later when the muscle men turn on Kelvin over his imposing ways (like making them do Bible study instead of more exercising). Half-way through the season Eli’s brother-in-law Baby Bill (Walton Goggins) returns with very pregnant wife Tiffany (Valyn Hall). A flashback reveals a shockingly cruel secret in Baby Bill’s past that also haunts his soul. The only seemingly stable Gemstone is Jesse’s son Gideon (Skyler Gisondo) who has the air of a more normal, down to earth Christian, but gets scoffed at for wanting to do aid work in places like Haiti.
In some ways you can compare “The Righteous Gemstones” to shows like HBO’s “Succession,” except the corruption and behaviors are funnier, even farcically tragic. Eli Gemstone isn’t a monster like Brian Cox, he just happened to turn his faith into a business that still corrupts deeply when so much money pours in. You almost want to root for the Gemstones because they are still a family trying to keep it together. They may work for Jesus Christ, but they cuss, scheme and by the fourth episode are facing masked, motorcycle-riding assassins working for mysterious forces willing to kill them. It’s the perfect satire and allegory for contemporary America, where religion has mixed so deeply with commerce and politics. Junior’s appearance is like a warning to Eli that no matter how spotless his image looks to the public, he’s as tainted as everyone else. Anyone shocked at the Gemstone’s behavior, even when Judy taunts BJ’s sister with incestuous accusations, should just look at the 2020 polling showing a majority of evangelicals voted for Trump. Naturally at BJ’s baptism Eli hosts a senator. Kelvin’s muscle men are punished by having to hoist a giant, wooden cross in a ceremony that looks more pagan than Christian. Power anywhere corrupts absolutely. “The Righteous Gemstones” just makes it very fun to watch.
“The Righteous Gemstones” season two premieres Jan. 9 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.