Can you believe it’s taken us, as a society, until mid- to late-2019 to let John Goodman play the patriarch of a dysfunctional family of televangelists? What have we been doing with ourselves? What have you been doing, personally? Why didn’t you do more to make that a reality? I know you had the time. Don’t lie to me. Don’t tell me you were too busy to create a project that stars John Goodman as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family of televangelists. You’re screwing around on the internet right now, reading this. You’re still wasting time. You really dropped the ball on this. I did, too. So, even if The Righteous Gemstones isn’t for you, even if you watch an episode or two and can’t get into it and respond by throwing up your hands and saying “feh,” you have to at least give it credit for correcting this cosmic wrong.
You are welcome to give it more than that, though. The show has a lot going for it. The cast is terrific, for starters. Goodman plays Eli Gemstone, a multimillionaire preacher with the charisma of a used car salesman and the ruthlessness of a turn of the century Texas oilman. He has three children: Jesse (Danny McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam Devine). Each one of them is a mess and a failure in their own sad little way, as children of a successful and domineering parent often are. You would have a show if that’s all you were bringing to the table. The family has private jets named The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. The opening scene — which I only feel comfortable spoiling because it’s been in every trailer so far — features the two sons leading a mass baptism in China that goes sideways in a hurry when we discover that it’s taking place in a wave pool that someone turns on by accident. See? That’s a show. Just that. Boom, done.
The Righteous Gemstones is more than that, though. There’s also blackmail and misappropriated funds and a parking lot payoff that goes about as wrong as a parking lot payoff can go, all of which launches the show into a twisty crime ruse, too. It’s got a little Coen Brothers to it, which is a credit mostly to Danny McBride, whose character leads the action and who also wrote and directed the hourlong extended premiere. The premiere is very good and very expensive-looking, in a good way. It’s fun to watch a dude get to the point in his career where HBO will give him a bunch of money and tell him to go nuts. That’s essentially what we’ve got here. Danny McBride with a big budget and license to add to his Terrible People universe.
Oh, these people are terrible. Don’t doubt that for a second. They’re rich and self-centered and not terribly nice to each other or anyone else. The show should pair nicely with its lead-in, Succession, in that way. Both are about a powerful father raising screw-up children and enabling their individual and collective screw-ups. It’s a whole theme night for HBO. But Danny McBride comes to the subject matter honestly. His bona fides are intact. Between Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals, his two previous collaborations with HBO, he might be Hollywood’s foremost Terrible People auteur. There’s a through-line here from Jesse Gemstone to Kenny Powers to Neal Gamby. A line all three characters would happily snort before ruining someone through a combination of malice and incompetence. These shows almost shouldn’t work. No one is likable. There’s no one to really, truly root for. And yet…
I’ll circle back to that in a minute. It’s dawning on me just now that I’m almost 600 words into this review and I have not mentioned Walton Goggins. Totally unacceptable. I apologize. Goggins plays a character named Baby Billy, a Gemstone-adjacent preacher who is at once slicker than all of them and also totally hopeless. He doesn’t show up for a few episodes but, once he does, hoo boy. He’s tan and broken like an old catcher’s mitt and his teeth are as stunning and sparkling white as, well, as Walton Goggins’ own teeth. The man has a set of chompers on him. He’s a treasure. But we knew that already. He played Boyd Crowder in Justified and gave us this moment as dandy villain/accomplice Lee Russell in Vice Principals.
See what I mean about this cast? Goodman is incredible because of course Goodman is incredible. Goggins is incredible and appears to be having an absolute blast devouring all the scenery he can. McBride, Devine, and Patterson all shine in moments as the troubled kids who are constantly veering between seeking approval and trying to break free. Especially Patterson, who also co-starred in Vice Principals. There’s a lot of big personalities on screen here. Everyone has to pick their spots and then go very hard once they do. She gets off some of the show’s best lines in the early going, most notably when the aforementioned crime ruse goes sideways. There’s a lot to like here.
This brings us to an important point, the one I said I would circle back to: The Righteous Gemstones will not work for everyone. Danny McBride’s shows, in general, do not work for everyone. I don’t think he would dispute that or even care very much about it. It’s kind of the point. It’s what he’s setting out to do. But it is a barrier for some people. If you did not enjoy Eastbound and Down and/or Vice Principals, you are perfectly justified in letting this one pass you by. There’s enough history for you to make that call.
Personally, I thought the former was one of the most brilliant and innovative television shows of the last couple decades and the latter made me cringe with discomfort so much I finally gave up on it. I came to this series as a skeptic, as one with questions, not as one who is blinded by an unwavering faith. It earned my devotion through the first few episodes. There’s a humanity to these awful people that feels different, deeper and richer than we’ve seen from the previous shows, and it feels strange to say that about a show that opens with a wave pool fiasco. It’s true, though, I promise. The show already feels like McBride’s best work, with the needle threading the tiny spaces he has to operate inside to make a show about terrible people work. Your mileage may vary, though. And that’s fine. There’s plenty of other options out there if this one doesn’t do it for you.
Now, please, close your browser and get to work on casting Angela Bassett as a loose cannon Supreme Court justice. We all dropped the ball on the “John Goodman as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family of televangelists” thing. Let’s not do it again.
‘The Righteous Gemstones’ premieres this Sunday, August 18th, on HBO.