Viewers familiar with Danny McBride's previous HBO shows, Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, will be prepared for his brand of comedy, which centers on watching selfish, self-destructive, and un-self-aware characters clash with others of the same type. It's a comedic style that's often brilliant, but seems out of place in The Righteous Gemstones, in which actual human emotions sometimes bubble up, disrupting the nihilistic placidity of the surface and hinting at a deeper, braver show beneath.
The Gemstones, a family of evangelical preachers who lead a multimillion-dollar megachurch franchise, are unrepentant sinners. They object to immoral or irresponsible behavior inasmuch as it affects the bottom line, but ultimately they practice the prosperity gospel that they preach. McBride - getting sole creator credit for the first time (his creative partner Jody Hill is an executive producer on the show) -- stars as Jesse Gemstone, a liar, philanderer, party animal, and bully. He is the eldest son of Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), the founder and face of the empire. Vice Principals' Edi Patterson plays Eli's under-appreciated daughter Judy, and Workaholics' Adam Devine plays youngest son Kelvin, a somersaulting "Hypepriest" youth pastor who vies for daddy's favor while dressing like a Christian rock star. The Gemstones live in four separate mansions on an opulent mega-compound. The plot kicks into gear when Jesse, a married man with three children, is blackmailed with an incriminating video, and the results force the three Gemstone children to work together or fall apart.
Or so you would think. The blackmail plot leads to outrageous and traumatic twists that would fundamentally change any human being, but the Gemstones act like this sort of thing happens all the time. Because the gap between the Gemstones' actions and their affect is so great, it takes them from amusingly evil to full-blown sociopaths. It's here that Gemstones suffers from disorienting tonal issues, as the show attempts to marry Step Brothers-style humor with Breaking Bad's violence and pathos. Maybe there's a world where this could be fun, but here the stylization required by the humor often makes the characters feel as though they are being artificially stifled for the sake of a predetermined aesthetic.
Patterson, Goodman, and Devine are capable of carrying characters with more depth, but their performances are still compelling. Several of the secondary characters are promising, if equally underdeveloped. Jesse's wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) comes from a poor family, and takes out her class resentments by peacocking her power over her acknowledged inferiors (her staff) and her would-be peers (other women of status). The price for her seat at the table is loyalty to the disloyal Jesse. Tony Cavalero plays an ex-Satanist "saved" by Kelvin, a sympathetic comic character whose knitted-brow earnestness brings a fragility and sincere religiosity to the Gemstone compound. Best of all is Eli's brother-in-law, "Baby" Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins), an aspiring evangelical celebrity and black sheep would be-shepherd.
Gemstones' subtler moments work better than its bold strokes, as illustrated by Jesse's sons. The eldest has run off to the modern-day circus of Hollywood, causing much heavy-handed family drama of the "I haff no son" variety. But how much more true-to-life (and funny!) is the rebellion of Jesse's middle child, Pontius, who has underlined all the dirty words in the King James?
The show wants to burst from its confines in other ways. The sets and locations are magnificent. The Gemstone compound is so huge, with its golf courses, gun ranges, and infinity lawns, that we are not a bit surprised when a later episode shows us that it also contains a survivalist obstacle course that we've never seen before. The megachurch is a stadium-quality rock show, showing that even if the Gemstones have no sympathy for Hollywood types, they respect their methods. Artifacts of the Gemstones' storied past -- record albums, photographs, fliers, video footage -- litter every scene, saturating the viewer in a wealth of documentary-quality color and background. There's a novelty song that played a part in the Gemstones' rise to prominence, and we see the song performed in its entirety in at least four different settings and recordings, all of them entirely plausible. It gives The Righteous Gemstones a depth you can swim or get baptized in, reminiscent of an open-world video game with an elaborate setting and a two-dimensional protagonist.
Sometimes these touches give Gemstones a meaning and power the A-story lacks. One of the best moments in the entire season (in an episode directed by Pineapple Express and Halloween director and frequent McBride collaborator David Gordon Green) is a poetic montage that serves no purpose but to conjure the excitement and power of walking into a salad bar with your parents in the 1980s. These sets and set pieces are an end into themselves -- the fact that the story and characters don't quite justify them give them the flavor of an unearned gift, and it is hard not to be grateful for largesse.
There's a lot of talk of the Devil, as metaphor and man. But it's hardly subtext -- when everyone in the world is as awful as the population of The Righteous Gemstones, we don't need to be reminded that there's a dark side. There is one character who is spoken of as the light of the Gemstones lives, and for the first several episodes she is occluded. When revealed in flashback, she radiates. Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles) is the Gemstones' departed matriarch: the saint, the talent, the binding element of the family. Nettles plays her with charisma and sparkle, and we share her family's reverence. But where the Gemstones' main characters are devils, Aimee-Leigh works not because she's an angel, but because she's a recognizable human character with flaws and contradictions. When she enables her swindler brother against her better judgement, it's out of love and guilt, and other feelings that real people have.
McBride has said that Gemstones is about "lampooning hypocrites," but there's nothing hypocritical about most of these characters; no tension between the bad things they say and the bad things they do. But there is a poignancy in the light touches and the tragic backstories of The Righteous Gemstones that proves that this modest level of complexity is possible without sacrificing humor or originality. If The Righteous Gemstones can come to Jesus and marry its competing drives, it will sparkle.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Sunday, Aug. 18 at 10/9c on HBO.