HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones is the latest Danny McBride HBO vehicle after Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. Eastbound & Down was fairly popular and gave us four seasons of McBride’s down and out baseball Kenny Powers – the pitcher with a foul mouth and even fouler attitude. This prototype is McBride’s stock in trade. McBride frequently collaborates with Jody Hill; they collaborated on the previous two HBO shows mentioned as well as the deliciously low rent comedy The Foot Fist Way. Though Hill isn’t a collaborator on Gemstones in the same way, he does play a small part on the show.
Though McBride has made a career playing obnoxious idiots with thick Southern accents, he shouldn’t be mistaken for one himself. A Baptist from Georgia of mixed ancestry, I think of McBride as the Southern version of Seth Rogen, carrying a bit of an edge. With David Gordon Green, McBride has written the recent Halloween installment and plans on releasing a couple of others. Green has been involved in Rogen productions such as Pineapple Express and This is the End. McBride himself has acted in various comedies that fall within the ‘high octane idiot’ subgenre like Your Highness and Drillbit Taylor. He’s made appearances in big budget vehicles like Tropic Thunder, Despicable Me, and Kung Fu Panda 2. Despite not having the profile of Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow, McBride is certainly no slouch.
Despite being an avowed family man, McBride’s characters are usually not that. They’re foul and crass and immature, bullying and conniving to hide their own ignorance and incompetence. McBride’s Jesse Gemstone is no different. Jesse is the oldest son of Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), lead pastor of the Gemstone Revival Center. This widowed father and his recently deceased wife Amy-Leigh have built an empire based on gospel preaching and showmanship. As a result, the entire family lives in obscene luxury. Besides Jesse, the other adult children are Judy (Edi Patterson) and Kelvin (Adam Devine). They each live in their own mansions on a gated family lot and drive golf carts to visit each other. Lurking around them, a frenemy of sorts, is Eli’s resentful brother in law, preacher “Baby” Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins).
Though this show has been renewed for a second season, only one season has thus far been produced. The first season kicks off when Jesse is blackmailed over a video of himself and his friends (other Gemstone employees) behaving quite badly (drugs and prostitutes) in a hotel suite in Atlanta. The blackmailer and his confederate (Jesse’s estranged eldest son Gideon, played by Skyler Gisondo) wish to ruin Jesse’s life. If Jesse’s life and reputation are ruined by scandal, the whole Gemstone empire will come crashing down. Therefore, he recruits the unwilling help of his two siblings (there is a lot of enmity and rivalry between them), without their dad knowing, in order to get the video back. A lot of chaos and misadventure ensues. Things never go according to plan.
The chaos and misadventure, coupled with the train wrecks of these various characters’ lives, comprise much of season one’s episodes. If you liked Edi Patterson’s deranged high school teacher in Vice Principals, you’ll probably like her similar vile portrayal of Judy here. I’ve never thought of Adam Devine as a particularly gifted or comedic actor but he’s the most innocent and likable character in the family, though that’s not saying much. John Goodman as the dad is okay – it’s one of those casual Goodman performances delivered in his relaxed Southern jowly drawl – but there isn’t much character development or definition there. Walton Goggins might steal the show in his capped teeth, sunglasses, and gleefully oily manner but this is the kind of mean Goggins performance we’ve seen a few times before.
If done well, Gemstones could be in the vein of other great skewed HBO family dynasties like The Sopranos or Succession. The show doesn’t care or make enough effort to do that. It’s more interested in chucking character development aside for easy gags. I felt the same about McBride and Green’s Halloween film which I also reviewed for this site – that was a film which began intelligently and with great effect, only to descend into a series of schlocky murder gags. In Gemstones, the murder schlock is replaced with comedy schlock. This would also be a great opportunity to delve deep into the world of corrupt televangelism and the like. It would be fascinating to look at the lives of people who support corrupt schemes and feel a need for commercial religion in their lives, though example after example has taught them otherwise. From Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the eighties to Joel Osteen in the present, there is much rich material to mine that would be more memorable than some of the empty calories Gemstones serves up. Vice Principals, as outrageous and ridiculous as it was, did root itself in the petty world of high school politics. Eastbound & Down was even better at being grounded in the life of a baseball minor leaguer. Why then is Gemstones so uninterested in its subject matter?
As far as empty calories go, these ones will probably keep you “munching” towards the last episode. It’s towards the end of season that some of the more satisfying threads are addressed and wrapped up. McBride and his co-creators finally address Jesse as a person and make him confront his mistakes and relationships. This forces other characters to reckon with themselves too. An early thread, the competition between the Gemstones and local pastors over patrons and fellowship for their churches, that was dropped briefly makes a comeback. Lowbrow/crude humour is all well and good but it’s the meaningful drama that anchors an HBO comedy. This is true of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Girls and Silicon Valley. A more enduring question might be: will quick crude humour like this last or is it just a fad? The top end of the category, the material provided by the likes of Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, probably will last because it breaks boundaries, although these creators themselves have been providing diminishing returns. The others like McBride and Rogen are probably getting in there and maximizing profits while they can. McBride has said he really wants to flesh the Gemstone saga out, adding more backstory and Gemstone family members, making it the most enduring project he’s ever worked on. We can only wait and see if that comes to pass.