When the revelation hit, I was annoyed that it took me so long: The Righteous Gemstones isn’t really about megachurches, despite the title, and setting, and characters, and…everything else. Surfaces aside, if you expect some kind of deeper cultural commentary, or an actual send-up, you’re looking in the wrong place. Just as Eastbound and Down wasn’t about baseball and Vice Principals wasn’t about secondary education, this show is not about evangelical/capitalist Christianity, as Edi Patterson made clear in an interview last month with with the AV Club:
EP: The thing I feel like we’re lucky in is that the megachurch and all of that is a backdrop more for this flawed family. So I think that’s super lucky. If our whole thing was, we’re going to lampoon megachurches, I don’t know, it would be a different show. If you’ve seen the first couple or the first three [episodes], there’s tons of specificity for church stuff. But that’s not really what we’re focusing on for the comedy or the pathos or even really the feelings. Our relationships are about the people within it. They just happened to be in this crazy, opulent world.
To write that kind of comedy, with the institution as the target, would necessitate making caricatures of the cast, and despite being goofy as all hell—despite a kind of artistic fealty to that kind of comedy—Danny McBride has always been equally devoted to the sneaky humanity inside the clownish exterior. And I don’t mean humanity in the sense of warmth and kindness and inner goodness, or at least not exclusively. I also mean cruelty, and fear, and greed, and all-consuming self-interest.
All of which play a part in his ultimate creative coup, which is to create TV shows that refuse to adhere to just one tone or style, or whatever you want to call the baseline emotional wavelength that’s supposed to define a single program. The blown-out idiocy co-exists with the subtlety, but it’s a mixture more than a blend—the two (or three, or four?) elements alternate in the spotlight. McBride’s boldness is the belief that he can create something that’s goofy and meaningful, cruel and uplifting, stupid and incisive, all at once. And his genius is that, in show after show, he keeps pulling it off.
So “church satire” could only be a disguise, but never the active ingredient. But if that’s just the backdrop, as Patterson said, then the most interesting question left is how to define the multivalent Gemstones with any precision. What is it, exactly?
Let’s start with McBride, who—I say this with affection—is playing basically the same character he always plays. There are small gradients of difference between Jesse Gemstone and the slightly more uptight and principled Neal Gamby of Vice Principals, or the slightly more reckless and dissolute Kenny Powers of Eastbound, but we’re dealing in each case with the same barely redeemable jerk. And it’s his abrasive, chatty persona that always ends up setting the rhythm for these shows. Sometimes it’s enough on its own to make you laugh and/or cringe in vicarious humiliation, and sometimes it works in absentia to highlight the McBride-less moments when other characters take center stage.
It does feel awfully quiet when Jesse Gemstone isn’t around, because the key feature of every McBride character is that they absolutely will not shut up. There’s always an extra line, always a lame comeback, always some insistence on rhetorical one-upmanship, and in this case it carries over to his siblings Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and Judy (Patterson). Watch them argue, pointlessly but hilariously, in one of the pilot’s first scenes:
Judy: How was China for you boys? I wouldn’t know, ‘cause I was stuck here, being a secretary.
Jesse: Oh, here we go.
Judy: I’m a Gemstone, too, Jesse. I wanna do things too. Why does Daddy always overlook me, huh?
Jesse: Come on; don’t get your panties in a bunch, sis. Flying around on private planes, being leaders. That’s men’s business.
Judy: I could do it. I’m more of a man than Kelvin is.
Jesse: Well, I ain’t gonna argue with you there.
Kelvin: Don’t turn this around on me. I got to go to China. She didn’t. I’m definitely more of a man than her.
Judy: Kelvin, eat my ass.
Kelvin: Yeah, right. That’d be incest, and that is disgusting. Bye.
Right away, we see the false arrogance, the crippling insecurity, and the constant need to either proclaim one’s status or put forth some grievance. McBride’s worlds are worlds of ambition thwarted, of ego without substance, and of desperate, indignified striving. And it’s all expressed with an unbelievable volume of words, as if the characters believe, against all the evidence thus far in their lives, that somehow they can talk their way out of the semi-permanent aura of disgrace surrounding them.
At first glance, characters like these can appear paper-thin, and if you don’t know McBride’s modus operandi, you might settle in for a series of farcical and/or hijinx that spiral out of control. (Which does happen, mind you—there’s no shortage of physical farce, and as far as “crass” goes, McBride and his co-writers love nothing more than featuring the most unattractive male genitalia America has to offer.)
But what you might not be ready for is the way these insecurities and insult-based dialogue give way to real darkness, and how the schlock can vanish as the cruelty reaches discomforting levels. McBride never shies away from letting the seeds of narrative meanness that appear in the opening episodes flower into full-on sociopathy by season’s end. This is where goofy comedy becomes black comedy, and it found its apotheosis in Vice Principals, where the plotting became so dark that at least half the people I’ve spoken to about the show confess that it got to be too much for them.
To execute the troubling elements in Gemstones, McBride calls upon his favorite dark angel, Walton Goggins, who is once again superlative as “Baby Billy,” the buffoonish Iago who is filled to the brim with resentment and the urge to destroy. It’s nearly become a cliche to praise Goggins at this point, he’s that good, but if there are better or more compelling character actors in the TV universe today I’ve yet to find them. He’s utterly captivating, and it’s probably inevitable that the scenes between him and John Goodman (as family patriarch Eli) are show-stealers. Like the roguish Boyd Crowder of Justified, Baby Billy is a charisma machine who is very much at home in his megachurch milieu, and like Crowder you will find a little bit of heart beneath the schtick…along with a lot of manipulation and bitterness.
In Sunday night’s fifth episode—the best of the bunch, so far—we flash back to when when Baby Billy is still a young man and becomes angry at his sister, Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles) because she has the audacity to get pregnant just before they’re meant to embark on two-person tour of the south. His selfishness isn’t a secret, but unlike Lee Russell in Principals, this Goggins character is more grounded, his ugly qualities more understandable. He gradually convinces his sister to go on tour anyway by way of a sympathy play, and it leads to a remarkable scene where the two of them perform a duet called “Misbehavin’” on Eli and Aimee-Leigh’s show.
I’ve watched the scene a dozen times, partly because the song is annoyingly catchy, but mostly because it highlights the ability of McBride’s shows to cover a staggering amount of emotional and tonal ground. On one hand, it’s bizarre and hysterical to watch these two adults singing a song whose lyrics and tone make it abundantly clear that it’s meant to be performed by young children. Then, past the comedy, it’s a sad and even pathetic scene for Baby Billy, who clearly relishes and needs the attention, proving that he’s stuck in a state of nostalgia. We already knew that by the way he embraces the “Baby” part of his name as a grown man (“Silly Baby Billy!” he shouts to the crowd, when he’s introduced), but the song makes it clear, and you hurt for him, not least because his sister has the lion’s share of the family talent. But there’s also this: They’re good! Despite the absurdities of the schtick, they nail it, and the crowd erupts when they hit the last note. Even Eli, frustrated in the background, can’t help but tap his feet and smile. Baby Billy is egotistical and toxic, but in his repugnance you see a spark of genuine yearning for the memory a life that peaked far too early.
(Complete side note: If you want the smallest example of Goodman’s talent as an actor, watch the way he plays the moment when Baby Billy tells him to stay in his seat—he’s a man pretending to be a man pretending to not be upset, it lasts about five seconds, and it’s completely brilliant.)
So Eli and Baby Billy are the deepest and best characters here, and that’s partly due to the writing, and partly due to the fact that John Goodman and Walton Goggins are serious actors with terrific comedic chops, while Danny McBride and Edi Patterson are serious comedians with good acting chops. To the extent that you want realism in your comedy, Gemstones is at its best when they’re featured.
Still, although your mileage may vary, I contend that when the show veers toward the goofy side, it still meshes beautifully with the tone of the more humanistic scenes. It wouldn’t quite work without Goodman and Goggins to ground the drama, but it wouldn’t be as funny or meaningful without Eli’s failsons and poor Judy burdened by her outlandish security. (One of the funniest subplots is Judy’s insistence that she’s being sidelined due to sexism, a talking point she revisits often while conveniently ignoring that her own mother was the family’s biggest star.) And when the two elements come together, as they do in an upcoming episode with Judy, Eli, and Baby Billy that I won’t spoil, it’s proof that the two disparate tones really do belong in the same place.
I don’t think there’s another show that even tries to pulls off this specific balancing act, and for good reason—it should be impossible. You can’t bake multiple styles into one creation and expect the finished product to cohere, but McBride and his team speed past coherence and into excellence. Gemstones is funny, it’s silly, it’s mean, and it’s moving. It’s a comedy, it’s a murder mystery, and it’s a human drama. Most impressive of all, it’s never hindered by a daring blindness to its limitations, and by that blindness manages to escape them.
The Righteous Gemstones airs Sunday nights on HBO.
Shane Ryan is the Politics Editor at Paste. Follow him on Twitter here.