TV Review: ‘The Righteous Gemstones: Season Two’
by Koom Kankesan
HBO‘s ‘The Righteous Gemstones: Season Two’ continues the escapades of Eli Gemstone and his immature adult children: Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin. Like season one, season two comprises of nine episodes and expands some of the backstory regarding how Eli built his empire. At the same time, new characters are introduced and the family continues to squabble and struggle within itself while facing threats from outside. A mix of over the top, outrageous, and gross out humour and developments, the second season will please fans of Danny McBride‘s previous work.
The second season of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones recently wrapped up. Upping the stakes from Season One, Gemstones (or a “goofy Succession” as I like to refer to it) details the exploits of mega-successful televangelist Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and his dysfunctional adult children, eldest Jesse (Danny McBride), middle child Judy (Edi Patterson), and youngest Kelvin (Adam DeVine). Eli is a widower and his deceased wife Aimee-Lee (Jennifer Nettles) is often held up as a high moral, functioning standard for what the rest of the family is not. Rounding out the principal cast is Walton Goggins as “Baby” Billy, Aimee-Lee’s brother and a comical charlatan as awful as, if not worse, than the rest.
Season one fleshed out the characters and their various feuds as they battled to either double cross or position themselves in a favourable position to inherit Eli’s empire. At the same time, Eli battled with local pastors to take over their followings and territories, while contending with age and the knowledge that none of his offspring were in a position to assume leadership. This is why I like to refer to it as “goofy Succession” – the broad themes are similar to that much more successful HBO show although the tones and formats are quite different. Those familiar with Danny McBride’s earlier HBO shows, Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, will know what to expect. In a time when so many cultural offerings are scrutinized for their political correctness, McBride and his writing/producing partners Jody Hill and David Gordon Green seem to have leaned head first into offering the most broad and egregious and immediately gross-out Southern stereotypes possible, and gotten away with it.
In Season Two, Eli’s past is fleshed out through various flashbacks. It turns out that in his youth, Eli was a more than competent wrestler in the Southern circuit. This led to his getting involved in the wrestling promoter’s illegal operations as an enforcer and collector, much to the chagrin of the promoter’s son. When the promoter’s son, now an older man like Eli and inheritor of his father’s Dixie mafia, visits Eli, a string of troubles, memories, and consequences from the past raise their troublesome necks. At the same time, an investigative journalist from New York is ferreting out Eli and his dubious practices, putting pressure on his operation. The third development deals with Jesse and his wife Amber’s dealings with another young evangelical couple who look to Jesse and his wife’s stake in building a Christian holiday resort. For their stake, Jesse needs substantial financial support from his father. All three siblings and Baby Billy in fact ask for, demand, and become resentful towards Eli – they are all fairly dysfunctional, unsuccessful, and need considerable support.
As broad as the Gemstones is, it’s a very watchable show, especially if you want something that doesn’t require too much thought. The characters are so over the top, trucking in Southern stereotypes, that it reminds me of King of the Hill or other late nineties/early two thousands projects, such as the movies made by the Farrelly Brothers, that celebrate stupidity while retaining a sentimental notion regarding family, friendship, and relationships. My main complaint about the show is not in the way it uses stereotypes but the way in which that material overrides the narrative threads. All of the narrative threads from Eli’s feuds to Jesse’s problems with the other evangelical couple are given short shrift and are unsatisfying from a dramatic standpoint. Either the subplots are not developed with enough consistency or are rushed towards their conclusions through cheap twists that seem calculated and last minute.
That being said, the actors do commit themselves to the ersatz outrageousness of their scenes. Goggins’ delivery and mannerisms are outstanding. Goodman is always a solid actor and though he seems to be slowing down due to age, the change is nice to see. Patterson (who played an equally nutty and pathetic character in Vice Principals) is over the top but the new season features some development regarding her long suffering husband B. J., the character who probably gets dumped on the most by the show. It was also nice to see DeVine’s character as the youngest sibling have a little more going on this season, and I’ve really started to appreciate the energy DeVine brings to his performances. The show has been renewed for a third season and I’ll be watching to see where things go from here. I’d like it if they got more serious about actually scrutinizing the ethical and moral implications of televangelists and super pastors defrauding their flock, as opposed to simply garnishing those broad suggestions on the surface, but I suppose that’s unlikely to happen.