'The Righteous Gemstones' Takes Aim at Megachurch Millionaires

Adam Devine, John Goodman and Danny McBride are all members of the family megachurch business in HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones.' (Fred Norris/HBO)

There are comedy creators whose sensibilities are darker than Danny McBride's. There are some whose satire is sharper, some whose characterizations are weaker, some whose sense of the moment is more or less developed. But there is no one more convinced than Danny McBride of the raw, unstoppable comedic power of male nudity—both frontal and rear.

McBride is the creator of the new HBO comedy The Righteous Gemstones. He has a track record at the network, for which he also made Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. McBride's fondness for sniffing out the comedy in terrible people continues in Gemstones, which follows the greedy and fraudulent family headed by megachurch pastor Eli Gemstone (John Goodman). Eli's sons Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (Adam Devine) and his daughter Judy (Edi Patterson) help run the empire along with Jesse's wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman).

It doesn't seem like the kind of show where you'd see a lot of naked dudes, but McBride finds a way.

This is relevant less because this fixation is either good or bad, and more because it's a reasonably good shorthand for McBride's style: He brings the expected satire about the excesses of extremely rich pastors and the foibles of families full of weirdos, but also a gleeful juvenile guffawing that can seem freeing in moderation and a bit like a crutch in excess.

There are two basic plot threads in Gemstones. One is Jesse's frantic effort to contain a possible scandal. It unfolds like one of the films you might label Hapless Dirtbags Do the Craziest Things—films that McBride has done with Seth Rogen and other members of the Judd Apatow cinematic universe; films like This Is the End and Pineapple Express. The other is Eli's territorial skirmish with local pastors near the new franchise he wants to open, who fear they'll be overrun like a small grocery store confronted with a new Walmart. Eli's clash with these men, led by Pastor Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), is staged like a standoff between crime families.

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It's entirely fair to wonder whether the purpose of this show is to make fun of religious people as such, particularly given that most kinds of television have not excelled at incorporating faith into the lives of characters. But Gemstones almost never touches or satirizes the flock. The ordinary people who attend these churches, the people who believe in Eli, are not targets, despite the fact that they are being exploited by him and his family. We stay mostly backstage, mostly away from the congregation, mostly enmeshed in a fairly pure sendup of a particular—and, it must be said, familiar—type of fancy, flashy, TV-friendly preacher.

At the same time, the fact that the flock isn't really part of the conversation means that what's being taught in the church isn't really part of the conversation either. There's no mention of what Eli is teaching his followers, or how those lessons affect them, or what alliances he has with anyone outside the church. If you're looking for a satire that places large, rich churches in the context of current politics or current social problems, this is not it. From a thematic perspective, this show could have been written about televangelists in the 1980s, for instance. It's focused on the weirdos in this family, not what the faith that happens to be their grift of choice has to do with anybody else.

With that tight focus on these characters comes a need to differentiate them from similar characters we've seen before. That's the show's most significant flaw. In comedy terms, it's fine for everyone to be unsympathetic, but it's more of a problem that they're unsympathetic in such expected ways. John Goodman is an actor who can do a lot with a little, but this performance seems like a routine version of what you'd expect "greedy televangelist" to look like. Even the introduction of the reliable Walton Goggins can't enliven the proceedings very much, because once you see his wig and his makeup and you hear his accent, the character from there is largely the broad caricature of a flashy buffoon that you'd expect.

The Righteous Gemstones ends up feeling like a pretty standard HBO comedy, in the same way there came to be a standard CBS sitcom style and a standard ABC soapy drama style. It has its moments, and it's likely to please those who follow McBride from show to show. But if you're likely to take an "if you've seen one, you've seen them all" attitude toward scenes where guys take their pants off, this may not be the show for you.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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