The Righteous Gemstones Season 1 (HBO)
Written by Danny McBride, John Carcieri, Jeff Fradley, Grant Dekernion, Edi Patterson, Kevin Barnett, & Chris Pappas
Directed by Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill
Growing up in the Southern United States, the early morning airwaves, even on weekdays, were populated with televangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and Jimmy Swaggert. There was the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) that ran 24-7 with regular sermon segments, a variety show, children’s programming, and always a number at the bottom of the screen imploring you to donate to keep the ministry going. Even as a child, something felt dissonant between the teachings of Jesus and the wealth-obsessed gaudiness of these television ministers. The Righteous Gemstones explores the world of a family involved in this ministry, a global multi-million dollar enterprise.
The Gemstones operate out of South Carolina, led by patriarch Eli Gemstone. They have recently suffered the loss of Eli’s beloved wife, Aimee-Leigh, the mother of his three children. Aimee-Leigh was the glue that kept everything from falling apart, and in her absence, the cracks are starting to show. Eli is opening a prayer center in an old Sears store in the middle of a smaller community, causing the local clergy to feel threatened by the Gemstone powerhouse.
Meanwhile, eldest son Jesse is contacted by blackmailers who have footage of him and his friends partaking of drugs and prostitutes while in Atlanta for a conference. The youngest son, Kelvin, is housing a Satanist whom he turned to Christ, and there are strong hints that there is an attraction between the two. Judy is engaged to B.J., a mild-mannered man who is often the butt of the Gemstone family’s jokes. Jesse has an estranged eldest son, Gideon, who ran off and works in Los Angeles as a stuntman. Aimee-Leigh was part of a singing and dancing gospel duo with her brother “Baby” Billy Freeman, who feels he was slighted when the Gemstones became wealthy and successful.
As Danny McBride (creator and the actor who plays Jesse) said in an interview, “[..], It’s like this epic, sprawling tale, like The Thorn Birds or something. You’ll know everybody in this family, cousins, great uncles, all these people. In my eyes, this season is chapter one. It’s just setting the table for who all these people are and what’s about to happen.” While McBride has been a co-creator on previous HBO shows like Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, this is a much larger world being built in season one. There’s a flashback episode to the late 1980s where we learn Baby Billy had a son with one of his many wives. The boy is obvious cognitively delayed and treated poorly by his father. Based on what McBride has said, that first episode was merely an introduction with more coming from this character in later seasons. Any closure brought about in the season one finale appears to be a prelude to a more significant storm.
If you enjoyed those previously mentioned series from McBride, then you’ll love the tone and humor of Gemstones. It doesn’t hesitate to be dark and dangerous, posing a real threat to characters. But then they will find wild places for humor and character development that’s genuinely funny. These are deeply flawed characters but also very endearing. Judy Gemstone, the overlooked middle child, is one of my favorite characters to come out of the show. She’s played by Edi Patterson, who previously appeared in Vice Principals, and has figured out how to portray Judy as an adult spoiled rich girl without coming off as a caricature. There’s a particularly funny scene near the end of the season where she tells the story of her first boyfriend, and we quickly realize, as does fiancee BJ, she was just stalking a married man.
As much as the show is commenting on a distinctly American form of Christianity, it’s also speaking to the twisted modern interpretation of the American Dream, the model of success for so many. The Gemstones traffic in the prosperity gospel, the idea that faith in Christ is reflected in the amount of material wealth a person earns. While anyone who has a general knowledge of the teachings of Jesus and isn’t being intellectually dishonest would have to admit such an ideology feels like it is totally disconnected from Christianity. McBride doesn’t critique this in an over didactic way, he simply presents the Gemstones as a very base, carnal, selfish people. Their stature as a famous tv preaching family doesn’t elevate them above the ordinary person. The most significant cause of their personal problems is their adherence to the idea that because they are The Gemstones, they must be beyond reproach. As long as they remain so arrogant, there’s little chance they can grow as human beings and develop even an ounce of empathy.
While parts of The Righteous Gemstones are incredibly outlandish and absurd, for the most part, it is a very grounded human comedy. They have found a great balance between the soap-operatic elements, the comic aspects, and character development, so we have what is arguably the most well-rounded show from this production company. I felt like every episode presented some new fresh angle on the story, and after the finale, I’m looking forward to much more of the Gemstones.