Since launching on HBO in 2019, The Righteous Gemstones has felt like a Southern analogue to Succession. It’s a show about a powerful man and shameless bastard whose three spoiled children squabble over who gets to rule his empire when he’s gone, only it’s riffing on Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell instead of Rupert Murdoch. The Gemstones have been frauds and hypocrites from the start, but season two digs into the violent origins of their rise to power, and how that violence threatens them decades later. And, like any good story, it starts with the one true art: professional wrestling.
There’s a common skill set that’s invaluable to the televangelist, the pro wrestler, and the rock ‘n’ roller alike. All three fields are the domain of the charismatic blowhard, the fast-talking slick who can project a larger-than-life character while easily charming the audience. John Goodman’s Gemstone patriarch, Eli, got his start as a wrestler-turned-enforcer in Memphis in the ‘60s, and it’s this history of violence that starts season two down its shocking and bloody path.
I don’t mean to make Gemstones sound too serious, of course. This is a show that turns the potential death of a major character into a mass barfing scene that’d make Stand By Me proud. It’s as brash, vulgar, and absurd as Danny McBride’s earlier HBO shows, as anybody who watched the first season of Gemstones can attest. But like Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, no matter how ridiculous Gemstones gets, it still somehow makes you care about its destructive, cartoonish characters, exploring the fear, desperation, and sadness that drive them. McBride and his collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green have consistently found the humanity within people defined by how inhumanely they treat others, and although that never makes them sympathetic characters, it at least helps viewers understand why they act the way they do.
As part of Eli’s reckoning with his past, Eric Roberts shows up as an old friend and the son of the wrestling promoter who introduced Eli to organized crime in his youth. Make all the jokes you want about the extreme schedule Eric Roberts keeps as an actor (he has dozens of new IMDB credits a year, and is on pace to set the record for most film and TV roles of all time, if he hasn’t already), and how he’ll take on literally any job, no matter how low rent the project is, but his turn on Gemstones reminds us all why he was nominated for an Oscar in the ‘80s. He’s really good here, tapping into a greasy, low-key charm that makes him seem all the more menacing when he has to be. He’s so good that I almost wanted to check out some of the other 40 projects he worked on in 2021. McBride has said that Season 2 was inspired in part by the infamous Dixie Mafia, the loosely organized group of criminals that started in Winder, Georgia, and had power throughout the Southeast in the second half of the 20th century; if anybody ever wants to make a more serious film about them, the Atlanta-raised Roberts should be at the top of their casting list.
Eli’s story tends to dominate the season, although ample time is focused on subplots featuring the rest of the family. McBride’s power-hungry son Jesse and his wife Amber (played by Cassidy Freeman, who matches McBride step-by-step in every over-the-top scene) are deeply invested in co-financing a Christian beach resort with the flamboyant Texas televangelists Lyle and Lindy Lissons, who are played by a drawling, guitar-shredding Eric Andre and Jessica Lowe of Miracle Workers. Adam Devine’s Kelvin Gemstone, tired of being stuck as the youth pastor, has branched out into running his own team of Christian weightlifters in the vein of The Power Team (who, yes, did a presentation at my Southern elementary school when I was a kid.) And Edi Patterson, who plays Eli’s guilelessly filthy daughter Judy Gemstone, is struggling with her engagement to BJ (Tim Baltz) and his secular family. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter played by Jason Schwartzman is dedicated to exposing televangelists for the frauds that they are, and the Gemstones have to contend with him, as well.
The Lissons wind up having a major impact on the course of the season, but these storylines aren’t as fully fleshed out or interesting as Eli’s. They also feel a little lacking in comparison to Walton Goggins’ occasional appearances as Uncle Baby Billy, who is forced to confront his history of abandoning his wives and children. The younger Gemstone generation doesn’t take a backseat this season, or anything, but they’re at their most entertaining in relation to Eli’s story, with Kelvin’s musclebound aside feeling especially thin.
Plot’s never really been what I look for in a McBride show, though. No matter how ridiculous they get, they’re still rooted in a recognizable reality and a detailed eye for how people live and talk in the modern South. That attention to detail is readily apparent in this season’s flashbacks, where we see a perfect recreation of a mall circa 1993, as well as how one specific fast food restaurant changes appearance across the decades. These shows masterfully combine the outsized and the subdued, contrasting broad, loud, propulsive comedy with surprisingly nuanced characterizations and a believable setting. The Righteous Gemstones Season 2 preserves that delicate balance, and also has pro wrestling, too. How could it get any better?
The Righteous Gemstones Season 2 premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday, Jan. 9, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.