The new HBO comedy from Danny McBride feels at once like an extension of the creator's other work for the network and a massive step up.
This Righteous Gemstones review contains spoilers.
The Righteous Gemstones Episode 1
Danny McBride has carved out quite the space on HBO for his comedic brand of toxic male entitlement run amok, and that partnership continues with The Righteous Gemstones. Created by McBride but featuring contributions from frequent co-conspirators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, Gemstones follows Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals in exploring loathsome antiheroes that peacock what little power they actually hold to hide personal frustrations and insecurities. In those past series, the bloviating existential anger came from not living up to lofty expectations, but in the pilot “The Righteous Gemstones,” this familial band of malcontents, led by patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and rounded out by adult children Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam Devine), are determined to hold on to their thriving evangelical empire.
Yes, The Righteous Gemstones replaces the middle-class ennui with lavish family compounds, arena-sized megachurches and private jets, and yet its characters aren’t any more secure than Kenny Powers. Eli is still reeling from the death of his wife Aimee-Leigh (country singer Jennifer Nettles), Jesse and his wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) are struggling to raise their kids after the estrangement of their eldest son Gideon, Kelvin is desperate to prove himself to his brother and father alike while also sensitive about his ambiguous relationship with former Satanist Keefe (Tony Cavalero), and Judy is eager to contribute more to the family legacy while defending her relationship with her meek fiancé BJ (Tim Baltz).
Like all McBride comedies, most of the fun comes from watching the characters trade venomous barbs while behaving like ID-driven, overgrown children. However, with Gemstones, there’s now a layer of detailed production design to supplement each character’s eccentric natures. Each character lives in their own home on the compound, all decorated to speak to their specific character quirks. Each glimpse into their private dwellings reveals more or works as clever visual gags. Filmed entirely in South Carolina, the Gemstones’ opulence stands in stark contrast to the surrounding shoddy suburbs and the small-time preachers that populate it.
That’s where part of the plot comes in; the Gemstones are planning on expanding to nearby city Locust Grove, but the local preachers are worried that their congregations are going to abandon them for the flashy services hosted by the Gemstones. Chief among them is Johnny Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), angered and in disbelief that this supposedly pious family would so deliberately crush him. Elsewhere, the hard-partying Jesse is being blackmailed by two masked aggressors with a video of him doing cocaine and cavorting with prostitutes. They want $1 million to keep quiet, and Jesse can’t muster the courage to ask his father for the money, knowing that the no-nonsense businessman will shun him from the family once and for all.
With little evidence, Jesse suspects Johnny is behind the blackmail plot, and using some of his cronies that were also incriminated in the video, forms a posse to intimidate Johnny in his home. Unfortunately, Johnny doesn’t scare easy and wards off the home invasion with a shotgun, shooting one of Jesse’s men in the process. Left with nowhere to turn, he begs his siblings to help him out. Despite their constant quarreling, they decide to help Jesse, using money that Judy hid within the Gemstone church to pay the blackmailers.
When the three siblings arrive at the drop, Jesse impulsively attacks one of the blackmailers just as he was about to leave with the cash. That causes a shootout, and in the ensuing chaos, the Gemstones strike both masked blackmailers with their car, leaving them severely injured or worse.
It’s a dark ending for the hour-long premiere, which doesn’t drag due to the amount of world-building and sly character foundations that are being laid. McBride directs the episode and it now positions him as some sort of foul-mouthed, hard to watch auteur. The parking lot scene is staged incredibly well and has the true crime gusto of the Coen Brothers’ best work. McBride and Gordon Green’s time in the Halloween universe also looks to have served them here, as the failed assault on Johnny has the shadowy tension of a horror film.
Fans of McBride will instantly fall into the grooves of this petty, sniping group and likewise, fans of fellow HBO family dramedy Succession will find something both familiar, yet distinctly different, as the Gemstones – seen in the final, mournful shot of Eli watching old footage of his deceased wife – has much more heart. I especially appreciate the way that the series doesn’t lampoon or punch down at the folks that attend the sort of megachurch that the Gemstones operate, instead saving its ire for the ridiculously wealthy conmen at the top of the totem pole.
Heavier on plot than likely anyone predicted, The Righteous Gemstones seems like it can spread in many different directions. McBride has indicated that, unlike his previous HBO series, he doesn’t have a set expiration date for the show, and that Gemstones could stretch on for several seasons. Based on the amount of thought that looks to have gone into everything right down to the characters’ pitch-perfect outfits and hair styles, I wouldn’t bet against him.
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Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.