Even in a world where everyone seems full of shit, the Gemstone family manages to astonish. The fictional televangelist family at the center of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones are Olympic athletes in the sport of bullshit, posing as a model Christian family at their megachurch altar while petulantly cussin’ their way across the American South and getting entangled in all manner of petty crimes.
They’re a gonzo mirror to the Roy family of Succession, similarly concerned with the petty squabbles of the wealthy as a window into the American condition, but with creator Danny McBride’s signature vulgar poetry, full of soliloquies about dicks and shit. They’re also kind of sweet.
This paradox makes The Righteous Gemstones one of the most compelling shows on television. It’s easy to write off the Reverend Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and the adult children that run his ministry as scam artists using organized religion to enrich themselves, but McBride and his writers are always clear: The Gemstones are deluded, crass, and vulgar, but they’re also sincere. It’s the classic McBride one-two punch.
“Sometimes, you can use something crass and raunchy to get the audience laughing one way,” McBride says, “and then that sets you up to surprise them when you punch them with a little bit of empathy all of a sudden, or you see this vulnerable moment.”
In the new season, currently airing on HBO and streaming on Max, Eli Gemstone is attempting to enter semi-retirement and leave the Gemstone ministry to his children. But they are astonishingly bad at it. Children of privilege, the Gemstones have never wanted for anything, and in that lack of want, have spent their whole lives nursing childish rivalries and insecurities. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to try and be good stewards of the family church — it’s just that, much like being good, empathetic people, they just have no idea how to begin doing that.
McBride, in the lead role of eldest son Jesse Gemstone, is the clearest example of this. In Jesse, McBride has created a character that’s a marvel of improvisation and empathy, a man-child with clearly drawn insecurities fueled by a cold fusion bullshit reactor, able to spend minutes insulting whoever is in front of him so he never has to listen to a thing they say.
“Unfortunately for Jesse, all he has is bullshit,” McBride says. “He’s thrust into the spotlight and inherits this position of leadership, while showing no sense of leadership. He never had to earn anything. He never had to figure out the hard lessons that it would take for someone to amass this much power and wealth.”
The Righteous Gemstones is a vulgar comedy about religious pricks who are often fumbling with their pricks, it’s true, but it’s also wildly empathetic, and that’s what makes it such a wonderfully complex show. McBride and the writers never look down on the Gemstones and their buffoonery, even with gross-out comedy like a firehose of vomit erupting from all three Gemstone siblings, or when these grown-ass adults have an actual food fight in a restaurant. Similarly, it never suggests that the Gemstones are insincere about their faith — they are wildly hypocritical at every moment, but they’re also utterly convinced that what they profess to believe is genuine.
“I think they definitely are believers; I think that the whole family is,” McBride says. “They started with a mission, and I think the allure of money and wealth and power and expansion has taken over what their initial goals were. It’s sort of the tragedy of the Gemstones; they started out aiming in one direction, and with success, they were brought into another direction. And I think that they’re lying to themselves and justifying their behavior, because they think that they’re ultimately serving good, but they’re turning a blind eye to all the ways in which they’re not.”
This is maybe The Righteous Gemstones’ biggest insight. It’s a very simple thing that thousands of words about the culture wars and punditry on left and right has failed to get at, but McBride and his collaborators have done for three years now (while also offering a master class in crafting dick jokes): It’s all too easy for bullshitters to bullshit themselves.