Let’s get brass tacks out of the way: The Righteous Gemstones is a natural evolution of Danny McBride and writer/director Jody Hill’s previous collaborations on Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. If you enjoyed those shows, Gemstones is clearly of a similar vein in both tone and that it’s a refinement of its predecessor, which is a tall order because Vice Principals was goddamn great. But from the very first scene, the Gemstones delivers, and it maintains that signature dark comedy momentum all the way through it’s ambitious one-hour premiere that leans more heavily into a crime thriller than Vice Principals’s slight flirtation with the genre. And that’s by design. Vice Principals was a placeholder — a “coordinated strike,” McBride calls it — while he and Hill worked out a series that they were willing to commit to for multiple seasons. Initially, there hope was to center a show on the Dixie Mafia, but then they found a more prominent subject that scratched that particular itch:
“Oh, this could be a good way to explore this idea of a family that operates almost like a crime syndicate, but they’re not a crime syndicate.” - Danny McBride (Vox)
The reason I’m tackling these recaps instead of the other Pajiba writers — who are legit critics that actually know what the hell they’re doing — is because I’m a pastor’s son whose formative years were spent drowning in southern-based evangelicalism. So my focus won’t be so much on the plot of The Righteous Gemstones, but on its depiction of American Christianity in its most capitalistic, prosperity theology form. And, folks, this show did its homework. When the very first “hymn” right out of the gate was “Awesome God,” which my brain instantly recognized even in Chinese, I had no doubts that McBride has been through the belly of the beast. (His mom does puppet ministry, which yes, is a thing.) That said, I’m already forming theories about the characters after just one episode, so as the show progresses, things could go crazy town at any moment. You’ve been warned.
Anyway, in a nutshell, Gemstones is about a televangelist family with a clearly defined pecking order: Eli (John Goodman) sits at the head of the empire, Jesse (McBride) is the first-born slash heir to the throne, Kelvin (Adam DeVine) is the younger brother who wants to be taken seriously, and Judy (Edi Patterson) is the rightly disgruntled sister who will never be allowed to do more than be a church secretary and/or pastor’s wife because welcome to patriarchy in its purest form. And if all of that sounds eerily similar to Succession, well, it is. It’s almost impossible not to compare the two. Both shows feature sons struggling to impress a wily, domineering father for the keys to the kingdom while an underestimated sister waits in the wings, both shows have oldest sons that are self-medicating with coke, and both are about the building blocks of the right-wing cancer that’s destroying America. Where Succession is about a Rupert Murdoch-esque media conglomerate, The Righteous Gemstones is about a Paula White-like ministry. However, the good news is that each show is still its own unique experience despite superficial similarities, and I’m interested to see how they complement each other (or completely diverge) because I’ll be mainlining both.
Now that you know the basics, let’s get down to how Gemstones tackles Christianity. McBride made it a point last week to temper expectations because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking the show will be a full-on mockery of religion, which I definitely did after the first trailer. But as much as I love a good axe-grinding, I also know that the show is a dark comedy with a story to tell, and McBride is clearly cognizant that Gemstones can be written off as just a slam on evangelicalism.
At the end of the day, church is a business. It really is. And it’s not to say anything about what the message of church is or anything. This isn’t a takedown about religion. I don’t want to clown people for what they believe in, because I don’t know enough about what I believe in to have the viewpoint that if they believe, they’re a moron. It’s not me, and I feel like that’s the way Hollywood has treated religion a lot of times. There’s such a disdain for people who are believers that I feel like it takes the insight out of it. That doesn’t make it resonate with me.
Here’s the thing though, after reading that quote, I went into Gemstones expecting it to go soft on Christianity, and I figured that would be the case. The goal here is comedic storytelling, so it’d be weird as hell for the show to go full Richard Dawkins in the middle of a dick joke. (I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.) Instead, McBride did something far more brutal: He showed the truth.
To his credit, the premiere, which McBride wrote and directed, doesn’t take a single dunk on the congregation. There’s not one moment where everyday Christians are made to look like idiots. And while there’s a definite danger to that type of good, “salt of the earth” generalizing, the Gemstones compensates by focusing its attention on how the sausage is made. If there is a central theme to the show, it’s exactly what McBride said above: Church is a capitalistic enterprise. After wrongly assuming that religion would simply be a backdrop to Gemstones like education was to Vice Principals, the show pulled no punches when it comes to its main characters. Granted, there’s a sleight-of-hand going on where the worst of Christianity is only being depicted in its blatantly hypocritical leads, Gemstones isn’t shying away from a warts-and-all approach to evangelicalism.
Here are the moments that stood out the most in this week’s premiere.
Only once do we see the Gemstone family at work in their home church, and what’s happening in this scene is textbook tithes and offering. If you don’t know what that is, it’s passing the ol’ collection plate. To the casual observer, this might seem like a normal Sunday routine, but the show is revealing something much more insidious. You see, the Gemstones aren’t just collecting the usual weekly offering. Before the plates go around, they ran a slideshow of their latest mission trip to China as Goodman’s Eli beams and gets misty-eyed about how his late wife would’ve loved the pictures of adorable Chinese children praying. There’s a very obvious emotional manipulation going on as McBride’s Jesse and DeVine’s Kelvin snip at each other because they know this racket is on auto-pilot. (We also know the family flew over in private jets and baptized a few people in a fancy hotel pool, which ended in disaster in the opening scene.) And sure enough, as soon as the slideshow ends, Jesse says they “saved” 5,000 souls, and the call is made for more funds for the next trip, and the plates fill up with cash.
This scene melted my mind because someone put in the research. Raising mission funds is the largest revenue stream for evangelical churches, and not just the mega ones. I’m talking across the board. There’s also the inherent colonialism of these trips that are at best poverty tourism, and at worst, Renee Bach, who I guarantee won’t be the last Christian white lady caught killing brown kids through spiritual hubris.
When a group of pastors led by Dermot Mulroney learn that the Gemstones plan to build a new megachurch in their town, the “brother pastors” attempt to persuade the Gemstones to pick a different location that only has one church, which surely, they’d consider. They’re good Christian men. (Although, in a telling moment, the pastors start by listing their very high membership numbers as if to say, “Hey, we’re doing good numbers over here. Maybe don’t derail our gravy train?”) Except Eli doesn’t even hide his game. He explains to the pastors that the town with only one church is obviously full of “non-believers,” but their town with four churches has congregations that he can easily absorb, so thanks for dropping by!
To be clear, this is a thing that happens and, again, not just in megachurches. Church denominations measure membership growth, retention, and most importantly, revenue just like any other business. And when quotas aren’t met? Welp, this isn’t a charity…
There are a lot of sexist jokes at Edi Patterson’s character’s expense, and I know shouldn’t have to explain this one because misogyny in Christianity is as obvious as the presence of homophobia, which we also see briefly in the premiere. But I just want to impress how accurately The Righteous Gemstones handles women knowing their “place.” As we speak, there are major Christian denominations in the year 2019 that will not allow women to become pastors or hold any leadership position whatsoever. It is a hugely contested issue that male church leaders have refused to budge on and have flat-out told women to their faces that it’s not Biblical. And yet these women remain in those churches.
As for the quick gag where Cassidy Freeman, who plays McBride’s wife, asks him if she’s allowed to speak, that is also very real. And ongoing. Christ, I know married couples in their early 20s where the wives are fully expected to comply with their husband’s wishes. “She can’t go against her husband,” is a phrase I’ve heard one too many times in casual conversation. (I live in rural PA for context.)
In his interview with Vox, McBride said that the show would address how his character handles raising his own sons and learning that the methods his own father used — specifically slapping — isn’t exactly the best route. So that hit me right in the feels because as I said earlier, I grew up in an evangelical home, and you know what’s hard-coded into that belief system? Beating children. It’s literally an instruction from god. I remember once when I was little, I did something wrong (probably to my brother) and I was already sent to my room and had to wait for my dad to come home. When I apologized and said I knew what I did was wrong, I asked him why he would have to spank me next. He went and got his Bible and showed me the verse about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, and then I got spanked.
Later, that progressed into full-on backhands for minor offenses, so you know, I’m extremely invested in seeing where the show takes this issue.
“Those Belong to the Church”
Early in the premiere, there’s a scene that might seem a little too on-the-nose, but I can’t stress enough that the The Righteous Gemstones isn’t pulling these moments out of thin air. While preparing charity/relief packages with a group of church women, Freeman beams that she loves doing good for others without expecting anything in return. However, one of the women notes that Freeman lives in a gigantic mansion and has a private jet, to which Freeman quickly counters, “Those belong to the church.” That is Televangelical Grifting 101. “Oh no, you’re not buying me a private jet. You’re buying the church one, so I can do very important work for the Lord. You understand.”
Freeman also accuses her friend of being momentarily overtaken by the Devil, which again, might seem like a joke, but it is not. Christian live in absolute fear of demonic forces and will make terrifying decisions based on those fears, but we’re not supposed to talk about that.
After Church Dinner
Not one character was shown tipping 10% or less, nor was the scene shot at an Applebee’s, so this is where The Righteous Gemstones lost a significant amount of accuracy points. It was doing so well, and then BAM, right in the shitter. You hate to see it.
Even without the surprising amount of research that went into the premiere, The Righteous Gemstones already feels like another solid hit from McBride and Hill. I love that Patterson and Walton Goggins (who hasn’t appeared yet) were brought back after Vice Principals, and DeVine fits perfectly as McBride’s younger brother. Kelvin’s bro-douche outfits are probably my favorite part of the show. He definitely smacks of try-hard youth pastor even though that doesn’t seem like the road they’re taking him down. But the world is very well-defined and has all of those great, little awkward McBride/Hill flourishes that you’ve come to expect like the rando, former Satanist who lives with Kelvin, and of course, every B.J. scene. B.J. is the true gem.
Next week episode’s will only be 30 minutes, so it’ll be interesting to see how rich in detail the show will be going forward, and I’ll be there to write way too many words about how all of that shit happens in real life. Stick around.
Header Image Source: HBO