Danny McBride’s latest collaboration with Jody Hill and David Gordon Green doesn’t quite keep the faith.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – one of last year’s very best – had a lot to say on the state of faith in the twenty-first century. One concept it quietly dealt with was the “mega-church,” a massive gathering of worship, where the relationship between pastor and congregation is explicitly performed. Danny McBride’s new HBO series, The Righteous Gemstones, has some similar concerns – except unlike First Reformed, it’s just not very good.
McBride – who produces, writes and directs some installments – stars as Jesse Gemstone, eldest son of Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), the emperor of the Gemstone Televangelist dynasty. Over the course of the glitzy, hour-long pilot, we get a sense of the Gemstone family dynamics – it’s a lot of Jesse’s immature spats with his siblings, Judy (Edi Patterson) and Kelvin (Adam Devine) on the family’s massive, multi-mansion compound.
It’s an accessible premise, one clearly designed to appeal to everyone. The Gemstones’ corrupt and insecure infighting is never painted as sympathetic, and I’d wager that any real-life mega-church-goers would be equally disgusted by their constant greed. It’s a farce, albeit one without much depth.
The problem is that McBride and collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green have forgotten to give any of their characters a reasonable psychology. They’re life-size cardboard cutouts we’re meant to laugh at, with no genuine or sincere center, no motives that last past a logline.
There’s a running thread of Jesse being blackmailed over a tape of his prior, ahem, misbehavior (partying, drug-use, infidelity), but over the six episodes provided for review, there’s never much of a reason to care whether or not Jesse is exposed. He’s not virtuous enough to root for, nor offensive enough to root against, the mere outline of a compelling main character.
A show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia operates under a similar logic, but the occupants of Paddy’s Pub possess deep, clear pathologies, which makes it easy to understand why they’ll always be stuck in a constant state of miserable immobility. But the world of the Gemstones is lavish and comfortable for these horrible people and doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Regardless of what happens on an episode-to-episode basis, the broader, fraudulent mega-church empire will remain intact.
It’s telling that two-thirds of the way through this first season, I can’t identify which of these characters actually believe in a higher power. The show certainly thinks it has something to say about gender roles with the marginalization of the women around the Gemstone compound, but its insights can be called surface-level at best. Obviously, this world is sexist, but that’s all the writers seem to be interested in observing (and including a lot of full-frontal male nudity isn’t exactly a game-changing point either).
It’s a farce, albeit one without much depth.
Look, this is not an unwatchable show – merely a frustrating one. And there are moments when McBride’s aesthetic coalesces into something hilarious. Pretty much everything involving Eli’s brother-in-law, “Baby Billy Freeman” (a superb recurring role for Walton Goggins) is genuinely funny. I love the hair choices, from Jesse’s mutton chops to Kelvin’s Mohawk, and there are moments when the inherent ridiculousness of everything happening got me to spurt out a genuine laugh.
In the interest of complete transparency, I’ll admit that for all my gripes, I’ll probably still finish this season, just to see if McBride, Green, and Hill can find these characters by the end of their first run. But so far, The Righteous Gemstones hasn’t provided much to believe in.
The Righteous Gemstones claims the bully pulpit on HBO starting August 18.