Since 2009, Danny McBride, alongside Jody Hill, has been creating dark comedy masterpieces for TV with Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals (and before that, their debut film The Foot Fist Way). He brings his signature bombastic, bad boy humor to each of his roles, from washed-up pro baseball player Kenny Powers to power-hungry high school administrator Neal Gamby. Now, in The Righteous Gemstones (10 p.m. Sundays, HBO) — apparently completing McBride and his collaborator’s trilogy of comedy series — he brings that brand to church as a filthy rich televangelist.
Each of these shows have progressively featured more of an ensemble cast: Eastbound & Down is synonymous with Kenny Fuckin’ Powers; Vice Principals chronicled the feuding friendship of two wildly different coworkers; here the scope widens even more to include an entire dysfunctional family of damaged demigods — and deservingly so.
A perfectly-cast John Goodman plays patriarch Eli Gemstone, who built a ministry into a megachurch and is blessed with God’s bounty in the form of donations from legions of followers. When he’s not counting checks, he’s mediating squabbles between his spoiled grown children.
Eli’s oldest, mutton-chopped son Jesse (McBride) is poised to take the family throne. He’s got the perfect family, including a hot wife (Cassidy Freeman) who looks the other way, minus one estranged son. A maverick minister, Jesse is set on growing the company’s, er, church’s reach, until he’s threatened with evidence of his sinful side, ready to be exposed.
The much younger Kelvin (Adam DeVine) is a faux-hawk sporting, deep-V wearing youth minister. He’s not a regular pastor, he’s a cool pastor, converting troubled kids one at a time starting with oddball satanist-turned-right-hand-man Keefe (Tony Cavalero). Lastly (fittingly) is middle sister Judy (scene-stealing Vice Principals alum Edi Patterson), a perpetual Jan Brady relegated to menial secretary work while the men enjoy church leadership roles.
Then there’s Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins), Eli’s brother-in-law who’s been tapped to lead a new church location. When you’re dealing with a talent like Goggins, you’ve got to give him a wild, multifaceted, meaty role, and Baby Billy is just that: charismatic, but conniving as the snake in Eden.
The Righteous Gemstones skewers the Osteen-esque religious zealots who preach the Good Word while stuffing their pockets, and the Gemstones are pushing out smaller local churches by opening annex locations in shopping malls. That hypocrisy is best represented by Jesse, while the others are (dare I say) more nuanced.
I was expecting everyone in this family to be bad apples, but they’re not that cut and dry. Eli is, at heart, a good guy, forever broken after losing his wife, just kind of floating through the life he created that ended up spoiling his children. There’s that latent sadness that always bubbles up in McBride’s shows — an emotional gut-punch for every 10 belly laughs.
Gemstones is not all fire and brimstone. There’s also a hilarious blackmail storyline with bumbling criminals and a fantastic ’80s flashback episode delves into some of the Gemstone family dynamics. The latter offers a glimpse at their late matriarch, whom Eli loved so much (a fantastic one-episode turn for Jennifer Nettles), and explores Eli’s tumultuous relationship with her brother Baby Billy. (And a not-to-be-forgotten musical number that will have you singing about running around with a pickle in your mouth.)
McBride has perfected playing the overly confident asshole with unmatched delivery, so hateable and yet so hilarious. Beneath the bravado of all his characters is a broken-down man, exposing the male fragility that belies toxic masculinity. Kenny, Neal and Jesse are all the type of guy who complain that people are too sensitive today, but absolutely melt down if someone disagrees with them or doesn’t take them seriously. The fact that McBride can play these types of characters for a decade — during which political correctness has supposedly become more important — while keeping the comedy firing on all cylinders is a testament to his talent.
While The Righteous Gemstones may be the final chapter in McBride’s hilarious unholy trinity, he has said he hopes this series continues longer than either of the previous shows. For now, it’s just been picked up for a second season. Hallelujah!
Contact Jac Kern: @jackern