Danny McBride has an affinity for frustrated and unsuccessful men. In Eastbound & Down, the first series he co-created with Jody Hill for HBO, he played Kenny Powers, a disgraced major-league pitcher determined to get another at-bat in the sun. In Vice Principals, the second McBride-Hill HBO joint, he played Neal Gamby, a high-school administrator who gets passed over for the principal gig and — with help in season one from a fellow irked white man played by Walton Goggins — makes the life of the woman who wins the position a living hell.
With his central role in The Righteous Gemstones, the latest from McBride and Hill, the actor and writer-director has pulled off a frustrated, unsuccessful man hat trick. In this new, occasionally amusing HBO comedy, which debuts Sunday night, McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, the oldest of three siblings in a family that has turned preaching and praying into big business. The Gemstones — once led by patriarch Eli (John Goodman) and matriarch Aimee-Leigh, who recently died (she’s played in flashbacks by country star Jennifer Nettles) — has a string of megachurches throughout the South, a ministry that spreads the word of Jesus Christ around the world, and an evangelically solid reputation built on a successful television show that Eli and Aimee-Leigh hosted in the 1980s. What they don’t have, or at least their three children don’t have, is a moral code of any kind. They’re all bullies with a very high-profile pulpit.
Jesse is the most ethically compromised of the bunch. He lies to his wife, insults his siblings and kids at every opportunity, and indulges private habits that involve cocaine and prostitutes. Like the other characters McBride has played on HBO, he’s basically an asshole. But unlike Kenny Powers and Neal Gamby, who engendered empathy given how much they have fallen and failed in life, Jesse hasn’t done any of that. He has a beautiful, loyal wife, three healthy children, a laughably huge home, and an enormous amount of inherited wealth. He’s been given everything and has seemingly done little to deserve it. There is no good reason for him to be such a dick. But, as a flashback episode makes clear, he was born this way.
The sense of privilege that envelopes Jesse and his immediate family is one of the things that distinguishes The Righteous Gemstones from McBride’s other TV work. Another is the fact that, more so than his two previous comedies, this one is a true ensemble piece. Jesse certainly stands at the center of the series; in the first episode, a group of blackmailers threatens to ruin his reputation by releasing footage of him snorting lines with a bunch of topless women, a development that gives the plot much of its initial structure. But Gemstones is primarily interested in the dynamics within this family, which includes Jesse’s younger brother and mortal enemy, Kelvin (Adam Devine); his perpetually marginalized sister, Judy (Edi Patterson of Vice Principals); and, eventually, his untrustworthy uncle, Baby Billy (Goggins), who used to be one half of a successful singing duo with Aimee-Leigh until she married Eli. McBride may have the most screen time by a smidge, but the show is just as concerned about what’s happening with all these other flawed, insecure figures as it is with what’s going on with Jesse.
Jesse, Kelvin, and Judy spend most of their time tearing each other down and doing their best to earn the favor of their father. That’s apparent in the very first, funny scene, where Kelvin and Jesse have joined their dad in Chengdu, China, to assist with a mass 24-hour baptism. While standing in the middle of a pool and ushering believers into a bonded relationship with God, Jesse and Kelvin start arguing over who’s doing a better job of dunking followers’ heads under the water. Eventually, their disagreement devolves into a splash fight, and then somehow the wave-pool function gets activated. What was supposed to be a sacred experience turns into total chaos. That scene announces what the show seeks to do: highlight the massive, absurd gap between the piousness the Gemstones attempt to project, and the pettiness and downright nastiness that infects the entire family.
If The Righteous Gemstones more consistently and successfully highlighted that absurdity, it could be a sharp takedown of the hypocrisy that lurks in a lot of Evangelical Christianity. But in the first six episodes, the series never aims its arrow directly enough, nor establishes clearly what its target is. Perhaps because McBride, who wrote and directed the pilot, and Hill are going for something more sprawling than their previous series, the show sometimes meanders too much.
The cast, as is always the case in McBride’s projects, is incredibly strong. McBride, Devine, Patterson, and Goggins all have a sturdy grasp on portraying the kind of people who sweat the small stuff while ignoring the big picture. Goodman, who acts as more of a straight man as Eli, anchors them with a stern, drawling sense of authority that he never overplays. Given all this talent, it’s surprising that there aren’t more laughs. (That said, McBride is a pro at conveying idiotic indignation, and he gets off some decent lines. When his oldest son mentions that he saw Vin Diesel in Los Angeles, Jesse can’t help but try to one-up him: “When I was a kid, I met Telly Savalas in a bagel shop.”)
As always, McBride has an undeniably great instinct for unearthing what’s so hilarious about pathetic, insecure grown men. But too often, he directs that instinct toward childish arguments across dinner tables, or what to do about the blackmailers who are just as loathsome and incompetent as Jesse. It’s hard to know whom or what to root for on this show.
It’s tempting to say that it’s hard to invest in the Gemstones because they’re just unlikable. But that’s not quite the problem, and to understand why, one need look no further than Succession, which happens to be the Sunday night lead-in for The Righteous Gemstones. The Roy siblings in that portrait of corporate nepotism are just as eager to earn daddy’s approval, just as privileged, just as rude to each other, and just as disinterested in ethics as the Gemstone kids. The difference is that, even when we don’t condone what the Roys are doing — which, by the way, is all the time — we find ourselves rooting for them in spite of this fact.
There’s a subtlety in the writing in Succession that’s missing from The Righteous Gemstones, even though the latter series does pull off some solid twists along the way. While the dark comedy in Succession cuts with the edge of a just-sharpened knife, The Righteous Gemstones smacks downs with whatever blunt instrument happens to be within arm’s reach. McBride and Hill’s comedies sometimes take a while to land on the right tone, and maybe that will be the case with this one, too. But for now, it’s a show about a spiritually bankrupt family that hasn’t quite found its own soul.