With Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals already having come before, it’s no surprise that The Righteous Gemstones, the latest HBO comedy from Danny McBride and Jody Hill, has designs on offering more than a razor-sharp criticism of the megachurch industry and the holier-than-thou individuals who are in it for less than pious reasons. The new half-hour comedy has more in common with the pitch black high school-set romp starring McBride and Walton Goggins as a pair of would-be educators ill-suited to the position, as Gemstones takes the concept of the abuse of power for personal gain within an otherwise public-spirited institution to a seemingly absurd degree.
But it’s the reality of that absurdity, as seen time and again through the likes of the Bakers, the Copelands, the Osteens, and more that McBride and Hill are able to so believably skewer the idea of televangelists sitting atop vast empires that seemingly fly in face of the word of Christ. It’s through showcasing such bald-faced hypocrisy that The Righteous Gemstones finds its greatest source of humor, one that allows its terrific cast, headed up by McBride, John Goodman, Adam Devine, and Edi Patterson, to shine as the members of the morally reprehensible family in question.
The series begins with a mass baptism in China, an undertaking that, for reasons that seem clear yet not particularly well though out, takes place in a wave pool at an enormous water park. The marathon religious initiation is an excellent example of the sort of cafeteria-style Christianity employed by certain factions within the megachurch industry, while the shameless squabbling between Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (Devine) paints a telling picture of what sort of family the Gemstones really are. That picture becomes clearer when the mass baptism goes hilariously awry, leading to a homecoming montage across the Gemstone estate — a sprawling patch of land where each sibling resides in their own mansion, complete with a fleet of luxury cars — that more or less itemizes the family’s inordinate wealth.
Such an opening serves the series well, as it provides viewers with everything they need to know about the family and its agenda, religious and otherwise. It also points to certain important schisms within the Gemstone clan, like Jesse and Kelvin’s antagonism, and the degree to which Judy (Patterson) is marginalized within the family business due to her being a woman. Yet, despite the promising introduction, funny characters, and strong premise at its disposal, The Righteous Gemstones piles ancillary story threads and supplemental conflicts — one involving Dermot Mulroney as a small-town preacher trying to prevent the Gemstones from opening another church and poaching his flock — on top of its already effective conceit, mostly to the show’s detriment.
Case in point: The series premiere is an hour-long episode that vacillates wildly from a satisfyingly cutting evaluation of evangelical industries to a pitch-black comedy that involves blackmail, drug use, extreme violence, and apparent vehicular homicide. While it’s no surprise that a comedy from McBride and Hill would find a way to integrate those elements into what is, more or less, a straightforward comedy about religious hypocrisy, the premiere struggles at times to justify their inclusion as something the series ultimately benefits from.
Part of the problem is that the premiere is simply too long, and while the extra time allows The Righteous Gemstones the real estate it needs to reveal both sides of its comedic coin, the hour itself feels bloated and unwieldy. Subsequent episodes come in much more manageable half-hour installments that better serve the show's objectives, and help mitigate concerns that, by diverting its attention from the family’s questionable ministries, the show is repeatedly getting in its own way.
Despite its overstuffed premiere, The Righteous Gemstones has a firm grasp on its characters, all of whom are realized through pitch perfect performances across the board. Though he’s not used nearly enough, Goodman excels as Gemstone family patriarch Eli, who is still grieving the loss of his wife, who was the ostensible glue that holding the family together. McBride and Devine are both playing to their strengths as an overconfident man child with too much power and a millennial evangelist who’s unsure where he fits in the grand scheme of things. But it’s Patterson who delivers some of the shows biggest laughs, as the marginalized Judy attempts time and again to get in her father's good graces, while running roughshod over her feckless fiancé who is the most frequent target of the family's scorn.
Those performances highlight the show’s greatest strength: Its depiction of a powerful family and its duplicitous, regressive, “do as I say, not as I do” values. The Righteous Gemstones demonstrates the power of this kind of comedy through wonderfully uncomfortable family gatherings, often in the Gemstone church or when they’re out to dinner as a group. These interludes prove there’s more than enough material for the series to run for several seasons without the disruptive digressions brought about by blackmail, assault, and prodigal sons caught up in criminal activity.
Based on the screeners provided to critics ahead of time, it’s clear that The Righteous Gemstones improves as the first season progresses. As such, it seems to be a case of the creators wanting to do too much in the first episode and later learning what they can and cannot live without. If the show continues to improve through the remainder of season 1, The Righteous Gemstones could be the latest HBO comedy audiences can’t live without.
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Sunday, August 18 @10pm on HBO.