Pop Culturing: HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones' is Another Solid Entry in the Danny McBride Universe

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday August 16, 2019

Adam Devine, left, and Danny McBride, right, in a scene from "The Righteous Gemstones."
Adam Devine, left, and Danny McBride, right, in a scene from "The Righteous Gemstones."  (Source:Fred Norris/HBO)

Danny McBride seems like one of the few actors/creators who understands how to make TV in 2019. Taking a note from the Ryan Murphy playbook, McBride has worked with HBO for the last decade, pumping out short-lived but beloved comedies, including the sports series "Eastbound & Down" (it ran for 29 episodes over four seasons) and more recently, "Vice Principals" (that comedy ran for 18 episodes over two seasons). Teaming up with his collaborators, filmmakers David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express," "Halloween"), and Jody Hill ("The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter"), McBride returns to HBO with a new comedy series Sunday, the over-the-top comedy, "The Righteous Gemstones."

It's the third installment of McBride's "angry men" series; completing a trilogy of sorts. Once again set in North Carolina, "The Righteous Gemstones" follows the wealthy Gemstone family led by patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), a massively popular and successful televangelist who runs a string of megachurches. Eli primarily works with his children, eldest son Jesse Gemstone (McBride), daughter Judy Gemstone (Edi Patterson) and youngest son Kelvin Gemstone (Adam DeVine). Like "Vice Principals," the new comedy features a crime that involves the outrageous and incompetent Gemstone children and is the driving force behind the show. The details of the incident, however, are best left unsaid and will not be spoiled here.

From left to right: Edi Patterson, Adam Devine and Danny McBride in a scene from "The Righteous Gemstones." Photo credit: Ryan Green/HBO

"The Righteous Gemstones" is first and foremost a showcase for its talent, allowing McBride, Goodman, Patterson, and DeVine. "Vice Principals" star Walton Goggins returns to the McBride world, playing Uncle Baby Billy Freeman, Eli's brother-in-law, in perhaps his most wild role to date. McBride's Jesse is a similar version to his "Vice Principals" character — arrogant and pompous — but more immoral than the good-at-heart Neal Gamby. Jesse isn't the greatest husband to wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) and his children, namely his oldest son, played by "Booksmart" star Skyler Gisondo, who ran away from home to pursue a life in Hollywood. Patterson, who was also the V.I.P. of "Vice Principals," is also excellent in her turn as the only daughter of the Gemstones. Always pushed aside by her father and brothers, Judy is thirsty for more responsibility in the family's empire and Patterson plays her with a desperate mania that is hilarious to watch. DeVine, too, holds his own and perfectly fits inside the McBride/Hill/Green universe, willing to go to the extreme for a laugh and face off with McBride. The show's first episode, which is a hour-long (the rest of the episodes clock about 30 minutes), opens in Chengdu, China where Jesse and Kelvin are baptizing 5,000 people... in a wave pool. The brothers insult each other while doing the good lord's work, which nicely sets up the tone for "The Righteous Gemstones" for those not familiar with McBride's previous series.

For his part, Goodman plays the straight man with Eli, putting up with his children's antics and still reeling after the loss of his wife Amiee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), with whom he built the Gemstone empire and legacy. When he's lost, "The Righteous Gemstones" cuts to flashbacks to the 70s and 80s where Eli gains strength and order to deal with his kids and maintain his role in his megachurches. This especially comes into play in the third episode "They Are Weak, But He Is Strong," when the show first introduces Goggins's sketchy Uncle Baby Billy Freeman, who is looking to get involved with the Gemstones again after being cut out from the family. Baby Billy (Goggins is made to look much older thanks to some incredible hair and makeup) goes head-to-head with Eli with a feud that carries over for decades. Every time Eli gives Baby Billy the benefit of the doubt, he manages to weasel his way into the cracks of the Gemstone family and sew chaos.

From left to right: Adam Devine, Danny McBride, and John Goodman in a scene from "The Righteous Gemstones." Photo credit: Fred Norris/HBO

"The Righteous Gemstones" is not a critique on religion, faith or televangelism. It's far more interested in family dynamics and being fully entertaining than offering a deep subtext about those topics. Still, McBride (who solely writes and directs the first episode) does show how authority, power and wealth can rot a family (something another HBO show is currently examining with better results). At its core, "The Righteous Gemstones" is a straight-up comedy; the kind of comedy that big studios rarely put out anymore (did anyone see "Stuber"?!). The difference is that "The Righteous Gemstones" can thrive on TV — or at least find a dedicated audience. McBride and Co. are smart to work with HBO on developing their ideas for TV than pitch them as full-length features.

Those coming to "The Righteous Gemstones" having already enjoyed "Eastbound" and "Vice Principals" will undoubtedly welcome McBride's newest series, though it is the weakest of the trio. Nevertheless, it's exciting to have an adult comedy that's genuinely funny and features actors who are giving it their all in a clever satire. It's good to have faith in "The Righteous Gemstones."

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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