HBO understands how good comedy works. Just look at Vice Principals and Veep which take realistic characters and drop them into outrageous scenarios. The Righteous Gemstones is the newest drama/comedy series from HBO and the latest from series creator and writer Danny McBride. The new season kicked off today with an hour-long first episode and subsequent 30-minute episodes to follow. The cast is insanely good, the production value high, and the subject matter of super-church pastors is an idea never explored in this way.
So what’s it about?
The official synopsis reads:
Upon returning from a baptism marathon in China, Jesse receives a video from blackmailers seeking to sully his reputation; Eli moves forward with plans to expand the Gemstone empire as he continues to mourn his late wife.
Why does this matter?
I was a huge fan of Vice Principals and I’m happy to see McBride back at it here. His form of comedy, which has always utilized a character type that is unaware of their stupidity and outrageousness, has worked so well in so many forms that it’s bound to succeed here. There is a level of ignorance and lack of self-awareness that makes his character in The Righteous Gemstones endearing, yet so easy to laugh at.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
This opening episode does a lot to establish the characters, the conflict, and the world that is super rich super-church pastors. John Goodman plays patriarch Eli Gemstone, who has amassed a following and a level of wealth one could equate to a drug lord. Following in his footsteps is McBride who plays Eli’s son, Jesse Gemstone, alongside brother Kelvin Gemstone (Adam Devine). In the opening episode, we get a general idea of the dynamic between the brothers who bicker with each other as they baptize folks in Chengdu, China. It’s quickly apparent the two sons aren’t too brotherly and aren’t too pious either. We soon learn this family flies by private jet around the world, lives on a huge compound with a house for each of them, and has a nagging sister named Judy (Edi Patterson) who is not considered their equal even though she wants to be. The dynamic between the family is quite good, especially considering they are supposed to be a shining example of a loving, religious family blessed by God.
Much of the humor revolves around the kids in the family not getting along, but there are standout performances by Tony Cavalero, who plays Kelvin’s best friend Keefe, and Tim Baltz, who plays Judy’s fiancé BJ. These supporting characters get moments that are truly weird or hilariously obnoxious. Keefe, for instance, is an ex-Satan worshipper who is incredibly odd, and by association certainly suggests Kelvin isn’t as squeaky clean as the public thinks. BJ meanwhile is a yes-man who probably loves Judy, but he also is weak-willed in many ways. McBride, who also writes and directs this episode, does a good job revealing the main cast via these supporting characters while also giving them some humorous scenes.
Much of this episode is focused on setting up the plot which involves a secret video that shows Jesse snorting cocaine and fooling around with hookers. There is also a group of rival pastors who aren’t too happy the Gemstones are moving in on their turf. The combination of super-rich pastors and their unending desire for more followers is a lot like a mob boss seeking more customers for their wares. By the end, some bold choices are made and it’s quite clear the series is as much about this family keeping their appearances while also dealing with the fact that they are not even close to pious.
It can’t be perfect, can it?
I did find the episode to be slow in parts. Since a lot of the episode is devoted to setting up characters, dynamics between the characters, and the conflict at large it can tend to stray away from humor or strong dramatic writing. This might be due to the hour-long length and it’ll be interesting to see how the show is paced when it moves to its normal 30 minute per episode length.
Is it good?
This episode does everything right as far as setting up the story and its characters. By the end, you’ll want to learn what happens next, especially with the way things leave off, but it is also quite apparent the family is due for a reckoning that should be hilarious to see.