I grew up in a Jim and Tammy Faye house. If you grew up in the South in the ‘80s, there’s a solid chance you did, too. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the televangelists who hosted the show The PTL Club, were cultural icons in the South, with their own thriving empire based out of the Carolinas that comprised a TV show, a line of records, a mail-order business that specialized in various tacky and overpriced collectibles, and even a theme park. Business boomed until 1987, when Jim stepped down after being exposed for fraud and a rape accusation from a former secretary named Jessica Hahn. He wound up serving five years in prison (out of an 18-year sentence), while Tammy Faye divorced him, remarried, wound up hosting a short-lived general interest talk show with Jim J. Bullock, and died of cancer in 2007. Jim returned to televangelism in the early ‘00s, and now hosts a show that pitches nonperishable slop food to end-of-days preppers. (It’s a favorite target of the video editor and comedian Vic Berger, whose mashups of current Bakker clips are absolute must-sees.)
I have no idea if Danny McBride grew up in a Jim and Tammy Faye house. He’s the right age and from the right part of the country, growing up in Virginia and North Carolina in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He didn’t need to grow up watching their show to be familiar with the Bakkers, though; again, they were celebrated throughout the South and known throughout America, and Jim’s downfall was inescapable national news in ’87. On his new HBO comedy, The Righteous Gemstones, which premieres on Sunday night, McBride proves that he’s clearly aware of not just their existence but specific aspects of the Bakkers’ act, from the exaggeratedly made up Tammy Faye’s propensity to sing, to her puppet friends Susie and Allie the Alligator. (Yes, I owned albums featuring Susie and Allie. Yes, I loved Susie and Allie.)
The Bakkers aren’t the primary target, though. Gemstones pulls from the larger world of televangelism and Southern evangelical culture, targeting the hypocrisy of the prosperity gospel and the ostentatious displays of wealth and faux-piety endemic to this TV variety show version of Christianity. Pick a televangelist, and you can find their influence on the show—Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, even the once marginally more respectable Billy Graham, who is still respected and venerated in the South on a level far higher than the televangelists that followed in his wake, including his own politically oriented offspring.
McBride plays Jesse, the oldest son of the Gemstone clan of showbiz preachers, the flamboyant heir apparent to his legendary father Eli, who’s played with equal parts solemnity and menace by John Goodman. Eli turned the gospel into a chain store, opening up churches throughout the Southeast, and bringing his whole family into the business. In addition to the permed Jesse, there’s Adam DeVine’s Kelvin, who has the fauxhawk and designer jeans of a Christian pop star, and daughter Judy, who chafes at her family’s unwillingness to treat her as an equal, and who’s played by Vice Principals’ breakout star Edi Patterson. Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland cameos in flashbacks as the family’s now-dead (and very Tammy Faye-esque) matriarch, whose passing weighs especially heavy on Eli.
The Gemstone children are each, in their own way, as outlandish and ridiculous as Kenny Powers, McBride’s character from Eastbound & Down. Jesse is a hard-partying hypocrite who plays the dutiful husband and father on TV, while philandering and doing drugs and presiding over a splintering family at home. Kelvin, in comparison, is almost a true innocent; he might have been raised in the grift, and might not have any genuine connection to the savior he preaches about, but he seems to genuinely believe in some of what his family espouses, taking special stock in the salvation of Tony Cavalero’s Keefe Chambers, his reformed Satanist housemate whose stoic calm and monotone love of the Lord is one of the show’s funniest recurring themes. Judy, meanwhile, meekly rebels by skimming from the family till and through a live-in boyfriend that nobody else in the family respects (played memorably by Tim Baltz of Shrink and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$).
It’s not saying much to call a TV family dysfunctional, but the Gemstone children are immediately introduced as being uniquely fractious. They present a united front on TV or in front of their parishioners, who they openly treat as marks behind the scenes, but don’t try to hide their contempt for and disappointment with one another when the cameras are off. Much of what makes the show so enjoyable is the way these three gifted comic actors play off one another as their entire world threatens to unravel. As with McBride’s previous HBO shows, Gemstones delicately balances the ridiculous and extreme with surprisingly subtle character moments that keeps the show from drifting too far away from legitimate emotion and humanity. Even McBride’s Jesse, who is largely a hateful blowhard who deserves every bad thing that happens to him, has moments of levity and regret that humanize him; his relationship with his children might be terrible, but he earnestly seems to want their love and respect, even as he blows everything up again.
Special notice has to go to Walton Goggins, the ace of Vice Principals who appears in Gemstones as Baby Billy, the grown, white-haired younger brother of Eli’s dead wife, who’s a minor televangelism celebrity in his own right. Goggins is hilarious and sublime as the autoharp-playing Billy, who’s barely tolerated by the Gemstones but also is one of the few characters in the show who can puncture their self-importance with a well-delivered cutting remark.
Throughout his career McBride has had an appropriately love-hate relationship with the South. He works regularly with fellow Southerners Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, including on the previous HBO shows Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, and all of their work so far has been set in the South. On the surface they might seem to mock or belittle typical Southern stereotypes—at its most reductive Eastbound’s Kenny Powers could feel like a Hee Haw caricature updated with pay cable cuss words and drug use—but there’s a clear affinity for their home region that shines through, along with an unadorned familiarity with the real South of today that’s rarely seen in TV or movies. McBride’s characters are almost always human cartoon characters, but they’re regularly contrasted with pop culture’s most realistic and matter-of-fact depictions of the contemporary South.
That trend continues with The Righteous Gemstones, which is the sole creation of McBride. (Hill appears in a recurring role as the church’s bassist and one of Jesse’s co-conspirators, and Green directs select episodes.) The Gemstones themselves are utterly absurd, and that’s only more apparent because of the otherwise normal world they live in. The people who go to their churches, which are sometimes based in defunct anchor stores in dying shopping malls, will be familiar to anybody who’s ever eaten at a family restaurant in the South on a Sunday afternoon. One of the central conflicts is between the Gemstones and a local preacher (played by Dermot Mulroney) who’s opposed to their coming into his small Georgia town. In the four episodes I’ve watched, Mulroney isn’t played for laughs; he’s not just a regular person who happens to be Southern, but an earnest man of God whose commitment and humility serves as a blatant contrast to the Gemstones. The Gemstones are cartoons not because they’re Southern, but because televangelists are almost always cartoons.
Gemstones isn’t perfect. A major subplot about Jesse being blackmailed eats up too much screen time early on, and there’s not enough Goodman in the first four episodes. Still, it’s a worthy addition to McBride’s HBO oeuvre—another messy, honest, exaggerated and realistic look at Southern charlatans desperate for fame, power, and success in a modern South that can too easily fall prey to their schemes. It’s easy to see Jesse Gemstone not just showing up on Jim Bakker’s PTL Club in 1985, exhorting viewers to travel to the Heritage U.S.A. theme park in South Carolina, but brushing shoulders with Bakker today, shoveling freeze-dried corn meal into his mouth out of an oversized plastic bucket and trying to convince the so-called rubes at home that God needs them to order this gruel for their Revelation bunkers. Praise the Lord and pass the loot, indeed.
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Sunday, August 19th on HBO.