tv review

The Righteous Gemstones Pushes Past the High Jinks in Season Two

Photo: Ryan Green/HBO

In The Righteous Gemstones, there is no wrong way to say Daddy. John Goodman’s televangelist patriarch, Eli Gemstone, is used to playing peacemaker between his bickering adult children, Jesse (Danny McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam Devine), and he’s used to answering to Daddys that preface their petty grievances and selfish complaints. The delivery can be sharp and staccato, like a demand, or cloying and elongated, like a plea, but the word most often accompanies a whine, a cajole, or an accusation. It is rarely an expression of love.

“My apologies for still being alive,” Eli deadpans to his ungrateful children, and if you needed a Succession replacement that doesn’t go full red state à la Taylor Sheridan, here it is. But the The Righteous Gemstones, McBride’s dark comedy about the Evangelical prosperity-gospel movement and the hypocrites who flourish within it, gently pivots in its second season from bluntly critical satire to a poignant exploration of generational change and individual purpose. And as the series turns inward to consider who the Gemstones are underneath all that wealth and rodomontade, the Daddy usage mutates, too. Diminished are the brattiness and petulance with which the word is initially delivered, and in their place step longing and fragility.

McBride is a sculptor of broken people whose self-sabotage functions as simultaneously their chipped armor and the weapon that dented it in the first place, as captured in his HBO comedies Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals and the first season of The Righteous Gemstones, which introduced McBride’s Jesse as a philandering idiot caught in a blackmail scheme. That methodology is at play again when the series returns Sunday, tracking the Gemstone family through another crisis that threatens to destroy its reputation and wealth. McBride’s finesse in character development and his trust in the ensemble to bring these absurd imaginings to life are through-lines in an unevenly paced, sometimes one-note, but ultimately rewarding season. Call McBride America’s Ivan Turgenev because these nine episodes and their focus on patriarchal domination are his Fathers and Sons — a dive into the gap between inheritance and independence, a schism The Righteous Gemstones fills with sticky blood, gushing vomit, and more than one flaccid penis. (The first appears barely 90 seconds into the premiere, “I Speak in the Tongues of Men and Angels,” because McBride might be the greatest full-frontal champion we have.)

The first season of The Righteous Gemstones set up the dysfunctional family with Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin barely practicing any of the Christian values they preach to the millions of followers whose donations make them extremely wealthy. Father Eli was disappointed, and the memory of their genuine-believer mother, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), was besmirched, leading to a finale in which the children vowed to be better. When the second season begins, they’ve stuck to those vows — sort of. Jesse and his wife, Amber (Cassidy Freeman), have started a prayer group for couples working on their marriages and made new friends in fellow preachers the Lissons (Eric Andre and Jessica Lowe), who come to the Gemstones with a potentially lucrative business deal. Judy married B.J. (Tim Baltz, who has a genuinely delightful Rollerblading interlude in the third episode, “For He Is a Liar and the Father of Lies”) but is disgusted by questions about whether they plan to have children. And the youngest, Kelvin, always desperate to prove his maturity, has left behind youth ministering and instead started Kelvin’s God Squad with his best friend, Keefe (Tony Cavalero), by his side. Kelvin leads these men (and men only) in prayer and workouts because “if you’re healthy, you do maintain a healthy erection,” and isn’t that what God wants?

But is any of this what Eli wants? Not necessarily. For the most part, he’s unimpressed by his children’s antics and how they still seemed fueled by a desire to one day push Daddy aside and take over the ministry for themselves. (In one of the season’s best gags, it’s revealed that none of his children knows his birthday.) Instead, Eli has bigger problems in the forms of reporter Thaniel Block (Jason Schwartzman, enjoyably smug), who is looking into megachurch finances, and a returning figure from his past, Junior (Eric Roberts), with whom Eli used to run when he was an aspiring professional wrestler in Memphis. The shadowy history Eli and Junior share interrupts Eli’s more beatific present and inspires all kinds of questions from Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin that Eli avoids answering. By the end of second episode, “After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come” — when the Gemstone children and Eli, all covered in blood because of unconnected circumstances, cross paths on the family compound — the stakes are set up for a reckoning that will alter the family’s past, present, and future.

McBride’s comedies with longtime collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green have always put absurdity first, prioritizing insults, snark, gross-out gags, and silly set pieces over tonal consistency, and this season follows that template for better and for worse. The first half features a fair amount of narrative buildup with flashbacks to Eli’s youth, a particularly important Christmas for the Gemstone children and Uncle Baby Billy (the consistently wonderful Walton Goggins), and some backstory for Eli’s committed consigliere, Martin Imari (Gregory Alan Williams). But that backward gaze makes the contemporary narrative and its prevailing mystery seem underdeveloped in comparison — especially because not every Gemstone child’s journey is equally interesting. Patterson is reliably unhinged as Judy, and her teeth-bared territorial treatment of B.J. is far more compelling and amusing than Kelvin’s one-note self-pity over his perceived lack of alpha authority. (At what point, if ever, will The Righteous Gemstones go the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia route and make Kelvin’s queerness explicit text rather than endlessly snickered-at subtext?) Roberts has had a long career of playing scumbags, but his Junior is thinly rendered and can’t stand up to the depth of interiority Goodman provides his conflicted Eli. And some members of this ensemble have such standout performances this season — in particular Valyn Hall as the Gemstones’ deeply twangy, far younger Aunt Tiffany and Williams as the pushed-to-the-brink Martin — that it’s unfortunate they don’t get more screen time, especially when a group vomit scene and those Jesse and Amber–led counseling sessions go on for so long.

Best of all is McBride, who as Jesse oscillates between vanity and insecurity from minute to minute. McBride’s career has been enlivened by characters who allow the actor to express unexpected physical fluidity and very expected sneering braggadocio, and Jesse — with his array of gold rings and chains, ’80s cocaine-smuggler suits, and pompadoured hair taking him closer to God — is an archetype pushed to its most excessive extremes. He mocks his siblings for their lack of children and romantic partners, but there’s a glimmer of fragility in what he admits to Judy about their father: “What I’m trying to get to is that Ken Burns documentary. What’s the real Daddy? How nasty was he?” McBride is all bluster and hot air, but he’s also surprisingly vulnerable and self-aware in his assessment of his own failings, his shameful body language at odds with his otherwise chin-first play at dominance. Given that this second season nods at The Godfather more than once, it seems appropriate that he’s channeling both Sonny and Fredo as he careens between the self-confidence and self-hate that so defined the Corleone heirs. Francis Ford Coppola, take the praise!

In its totality, what makes this second season of The Righteous Gemstones succeed despite how off-balance its early episodes feel is the sense that, rather than taking only easy shots at people who use Christianity as a shield against rightful accusations of them, McBride and his collaborators have probed deeper into the transformative nature of belief and why it makes such people act that way at all. If someone was convinced their faith was insufficient, what would it make them do? What if their faith was impenetrable? What misdeeds, mistakes, and transgressions do we explain away as God’s will, and for what do we take responsibility? There is a timeless quality to these concepts and questions, emphasizing the decades-spanning nature of this season’s story and opening up a new lane for where a future installment could go. “Human beings are capable of horrific things depending on the circumstances,” Keefe says, and The Righteous Gemstones pulls off in its second season both a deliberate exploration of the ouroboros-like nature of sin and forgiveness and a showcase for McBride as a writer and director with the unshakeable belief that our ugliest moments might also be our funniest and most honest.

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The Righteous Gemstones Season Two Pushes Past High Jinks