The Righteous Gemstones
Eli is the most righteous of the Gemstones, almost by default — not merely because his sins are more discreet than those of other family members, but because he’s genuinely seeking salvation. The second season of The Righteous Gemstones opens with a seeming piece of misdirection, flashing back to Memphis in 1968, when a fresh-faced wrestler named the Maniac Kid, in Lone Ranger get-up, whips an Indian in full headdress over the top ropes. He then agrees to step in as a mighty henchman for his shady boss, snapping the thumbs of a deadbeat who won’t pay up. The kid is Eli Gemstone, and he’s got the devil in him.
Now presiding over the Gemstone empire, which includes a brand-new premium streaming service, Eli still carries the contradictions of his youth, when he was both showman and child of God, the Maniac Kid and the progeny of a humble Christian family. These contradictions cannot be reconciled, of course, and now they’re been amplified into this grotesque evangelical cash machine, which can buy him the image of righteousness (and political favors) without ever actually redeeming him. And much like Logan Roy in Succession — which seems more and more like a sister show to this one — Eli’s foul, greedy, dim-witted children are a reflection of his moral shortcomings and a sad reminder of the future that awaits his empire. No wonder Logan and Eli are both clinging to their posts with both hands.
As if he weren’t acutely aware of this spiritual predicament already, Eli gets an unwanted visitor from his past in Junior, played by Eric Roberts, an actor whose sinister oiliness dates back at least to Bob Fosse’s 1983 film Star 80, in which he played the husband and murderer of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten. Nearly 40 years later, Roberts still has an ease about him in the darkest roles, as if he’s comfortable in his villainy. There’s never a moment in “I Speak in the Tongues of Men and Angels” when his Junior feels ill at ease around Eli, despite the obvious fact that he doesn’t carry the same money or influence. He says he’s there for a friendly nostalgia trip with Eli — and Eli indulges the fiction by picking up a steak dinner at Sticky Stephen’s — but his purpose is to reacquaint himself with the Maniac Kid again. Once that Eli Gemstone reemerges, anything is possible.
After last season’s threats were suppressed with little consequence to the Gemstones — which enforces the show’s running theme about our tendency to endlessly forgive rich frauds — things are looking a little better for the family overall. Judy is out singing and dancing in front of a packed house at Gemstone Salvation Center, proving that she doesn’t need Baby Billy to realize her show-biz dreams. After she shot him in the ass for his lying and cavorting and coke-snorting, Jesse has earned back the trust of his wife Amber, and the two are casting their eyes on a new entrepreneurial venture. As for Kelvin, he has recruited a beefcake army called Kelvin’s God Squad, who together resemble the workers inside the gay steel mill in the John Waters episode of The Simpsons.
But there’s plenty of new trouble on the horizon. Jesse and Amber meet with another young-ish Christian power couple, the Lissons, Lyle (Eric André) and Lindy (Jessica Lowe), who entertain a massive congregation in Texas with a sexed-up rock show that’s like Quiet Riot for the spiritually immaculate. As first-born children of a lame boomer generation, the Gemstones and the Lissons have an instant connection, and it doesn’t take much for these Deep South snake-oil salespersons to convince Jesse and Amber to partner up on a Christian beachside timeshare in Florida. They don’t even have to see the property before saying “Yes.” And Eli doesn’t even have to see the numbers to say “No.”
There are solid reasons for Eli to object to the deal, like Jesse being a sleazy idiot or the Lissons seeming exactly like the sort of hucksters who might convince dupes to sink money in a timeshare along federally protected beachfront property. But he didn’t need to fly all the way down to Florida and get a tour of the proposed resort to reach those conclusions. He wants to humiliate Jesse in front of the Lissons for trying to inherit the Gemstone empire before the old man’s even thought about retirement. He waits for the right moment to say, “Stop showing off in front of your friends, Jesse,” and walks off the beach. That’s how the Maniac Kid breaks thumbs these days.
The other threat to the Gemstones this season gets a softer introduction than the Lissons. When a newspaper story on a televangelist named Makewon Butterfield gets published, citing evidence that Butterfield filmed his wife in flagrante delicto with another woman in a dance-club bathroom, that spells the end of the Butterfields on Eli’s streaming platform. But most of the brain trust comes to a different conclusion, one shared by many elites who have seen their brethren exposed for wrongdoing: Butterfield is not to blame for ruining his life; rather, the journalist who investigated him is. Once the parishioners’ cash hits the collection plate, following the money sounds like a big-city, anti-Christian agenda in action, right? The journalist here, played by Jason Schwartzman, isn’t done yet.
• “That’s a nice dick, Ernie.” Even in a tight flashback section, this show is unwavering in its commitment to casual male nudity.
• This episode is bookended by Coen-brothers moments: Butterfield running from a meeting to jump off the balcony is a nod to The Hudsucker Proxy, only he falls two stories rather than 45 floors (not counting the mezzanine), and Goodman’s transformation from gentle preacher to violent, thundering beast recalls his salt-of-the-earth insurance man in Barton Fink.
• Danny McBride has unique comic gifts that can be hard to describe, other than thinking about him as a particularly zesty vulgarian. There’s not an actor in America who says the line, “Your mom and I are not comfortable talking about cum with your baby brother,” any funnier. And it’s a very funny line on its face.
• “It is time to finally stop the constant flood of filth and propaganda coming out of Hollywood. If they’re going to fill the airwaves 24/7 with that garbage, we’re going to do the same thing.” Indeed.
• Sunday brunches are always a special occasion for Gemstone family dysfunction, but it’ll be hard for this season to top the back-and-forth over “Amber’s played-out pastrami.” Jesse’s retort, “Do not talk about my wife’s vagina at church lunch,” is made all the funnier by the implication that there actually is an appropriate time to talk about it. (And that time is a little later, when Jesse asks his siblings to “kiss the ring” that’s been inside it.)
• It’s a common tactic in religious circles to claim that dead relatives are watching you all the time from heaven, even when you’re doing shameful things. But Jesse’s chat with Abraham over his “cum-blasting” habits is next level: “When those hands of yours touch your privates, an alarm goes off in heaven. And every loved one you’ve ever known that’s dead, they’re alerted, they float to where you are, they join hands, and they watch you be dirty to yourself.”