What we have on our hands here is a classic Good News, Bad News situation. We’ll start with the good news first, in four parts, because it’s always better to lead from a place of solid vibes.
GOOD NEWS, PART I
The Righteous Gemstones is back, finally, after over two full years away. If you were smart, you cushioned this situation with a periodic rewatch or two of the first season, in part because it’s smart to stay fresh with these things and in part because the first season was so damn good. I’ve rewatched it at least three times, usually in frantic 48-hour blasts, which is something you can still do too if you start, like, now, and power through before Sunday night’s two-part premiere. There are much less productive uses of your time. It’s January. It’s not like the lawn needs to be mowed on Saturday.
Everything about it was so good, too, starting with the cast. Danny McBride, creator and star, as the pompous dipshit eldest son of a powerful televangelist played by, as is only right, John Goodman. Workaholics star Adam Devine as the weirdo baby of the family who lives with a one-time Satan worshipper he converted. Edi Patterson as the oft-overlooked middle child who is married to a vanilla cookie of a man named BJ, both of whom steal scenes from their more famous counterparts with enough regularity to call it a crime spree. And Walton Goggins is in there, too, in old man makeup, as a singing and dancing preacher named Baby Billy Freeman who is equal parts petty and devious. We’ll discuss him more later.
If this all sounds, on paper, like HBO’s other notable show about a powerful family consisting of a domineering father and his imbecile children, well, there’s a good reason for that: It does look a lot like Succession… on paper. You can even line up the characters if you want, in a way that works weirdly well. (Eli is Logan, Jesse is Kendall, Kelvin is Roman, Judy and BJ are Shiv and Tom, etc.) There are important differences here, though. The first is the biggie: Succession is, primarily, a drama, one that uses its gravitas to blindside the viewer with furious fits of comedy; Gemstones is a comedy, primarily, one that uses unbridled silliness to occasionally blindside the viewer with feeling. Very occasionally. The show prides itself on being a ridiculous endeavor that a few people — John Goodman, mostly — play arrow-straight, which actually adds to the comedy. This is science, really.
The episodes are shorter, too, typically in the 30-40 minute window, which is nice. The shows are less copies of each other than they are flip sides of the same dysfunction, self-destructive coin. Forty percent of all shows could use this framework and I wouldn’t care if they pulled it off this well.
What I’m saying here is that all of this is basically the opposite of a complaint.
GOOD NEWS, PART II
Walton Goggins is back. I don’t think words can do justice to how much fun he is on this show. Baby Billy Freeman is the brother of Eli Gemstone’s now-deceased wife, a man who is livid at the world for the hand he was dealt even though he’s still holding what amounts to a flush draw at all times. He rants and raves and schemes through his geriatric makeup and white wig and gets to do just the most bonkers stuff you can imagine, all of which he eats up like church lunch. Look at that screencap up there. It’s perfect. And useful.
More importantly, look at this.
You’ve seen this before. Everyone has seen it. It’s probably been stuck in your head on and off for the full two years since the show ended. That’s fine. There are worse things to have stuck in your head, provided it doesn’t interfere with, like, your job, which I say as someone who once derailed an interview with poor Walton Goggins for a few minutes with questions about running through the house with a pickle in your mouth. It’s fine. I’m fine. Let’s move on.
And we should, because it gets better. As revealed in this preview piece from the great Alan Siegel at The Ringer, Goggins is at it again.
But once again the season’s wildest moments belong to Baby Billy Freeman, the singing, scheming chaos agent played by Goggins. “Walton is so good at bringing him out,” McBride says. “Sometimes the more ridiculous material you hand him, the more interesting it is to see him land it, because he really can make anything land. … He’s involved in probably one of the most ridiculous things we’ve ever written before, he completely lands it in such a way that it almost makes it heavenly.”
We are all truly very blessed.
GOOD NEWS, PART III
As if the cast wasn’t already just a Murderer’s Row of comedic skill, they went ahead and added the following people, among others:
- Eric Roberts as a former professional wrestling kingpin from Memphis who shows up early on to pull Eli toward the dark side through a series of flashbacks and thumb disfigurements
- Eric Andre as an up and coming televangelist from Texas who attempts to woo members of the family with fame and riches and independence in a way that creates a delightful little rift
- Jason Schwartzman as an investigative reporter named, I swear to the Heavenly Father himself, Thaniel, who is digging around in the Gemstone family’s past and altogether just being a pain in their neck, which is a perfect use of Jason Schwartzman
Again, no complaints.
GOOD NEWS, PART IV
Look at the episode descriptions for the episodes in the two-part series premiere. Number one…
As Jesse eyes a business opportunity with an Evangelical couple on the rise, the media cracks down on a fellow preacher; Eli reconnects with a figure from his mysterious past.
… and number two:
After doubling-down on their efforts to invest in Zion’s Landing, Jesse and Amber scramble for the cash; Eli’s attempts to dodge a big-city reporter spell doom for the Gemstones.
We already have intra-family squabbles and cash scrambles and dalliances with crime. There are also a surprisingly large number of motorcycles and super buff Jesus-stans, and, at one point, at church lunch, BJ drinks milk out of a wine glass. I suppose that last thing could be considered a spoiler, in the loosest sense of the term, even though HBO released it as a promotional image last month. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I saw the screener a while ago and have kept it to myself until now. I’m only so strong.
Unfortunately, this marks the end of the good news and brings us to…
I fell in love with the idea of a Good News, Bad News format for this sucker a few days ago, thinking, like a dummy, that I could figure something out to slot here. Turns out I can’t. There is no bad news. It’s a wonderful and chaotic show and I’m so happy it’s back. My editor is probably sighing and rolling his eyes right now. Sorry, buddy. I get excited.
Season 2 of The Righteous Gemstones debuts with a two-part premiere on Sunday, January 9