Thursday, August 29, 2019

Righteous Gemstones

Coach and I started watching The Righteous Gemstones on HBO this week.  This (dark) American comedy television series follows "the world famous Gemstone televangelist family, which has a long tradition of deviance, greed, and charitable work, all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ."  The series, created by Danny McBride, premiered August 18, 2019 on HBO and stars McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson and Adam DeVine.

Shot and set in South Carolina, The Righteous Gemstones focuses on a family of evangelists:  The Patriarch Eli Gemstone (Goodman) is part preacher and part spiritual bully, mostly still reeling from the death of wife and empire cornerstone Aimee-Leigh (played by Jennifer Nettles in flashbacks). Eldest son Jesse (McBride) revels in the excess of his lifestyle, supported by smokeshow wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman).  Youngest son Kelvin (Devine) is a youth ministry hot-shot with an ambiguous private life that includes the ubiquitous presence of former satanist Keefe (Tony Cavalero). Finally, there's middle child Judy (Patterson).  Judy's neglected and rarely allowed to be part of the male-dominated, faith-based circus that has given the family a vast compound with an amusement park and a character-specifically designed house for each kid and his/her individual dysfunctional family.
The family 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.  
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 shit show. 
Danny McBride has an affinity for frustrated and unsuccessful men.  Danny McBride makes shows that broadcast at a very specific and targeted frequency, or maybe a very specific volume. On Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, characters rarely spoke when they could shout, never hung up a phone when they could throw that phone to the ground and smash it into a million pieces.  It's been a McBride trademark that as his men are pitted against one another in mutually assured destruction, the women sneak in and, by design, steal the story.

With his central role in The Righteous Gemstones, the actor and writer-director has pulled off a frustrated, unsuccessful man hat trick.  Like the other characters McBride has played on HBO, he’s basically an asshole. But unlike Kenny Powers (Eastbound and Down's disgraced major league pitcher determined to get another at-bat in the sun) and 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 — makes the life of the woman who wins the position a living hell in Vice Principals), 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 an ass.   

      The Gemstone cast is incredibly strong. Anchored by John Goodman, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson and McBride, they lampoon megachurches with enthusiastically performed coarse language.  The Gemstones are devout, but you'll spend much of the time questioning which members of the family believe the message they're selling — denominationally nonspecific — and which are driven solely by opulence that their professed creed has yielded. No matter their sincerity, they're all dedicated in some way and The Righteous Gemstones critiques them and their family unit far more than it critiques either religion in general or the commodified piety the Gemstones provide for the largely unseen masses, who definitively are not treated with contempt.  The characters belittle, emasculate and eviscerate each other.  
The show itself loves these characters and illustrating every aspect of their world, from the meticulous detailing of each Gemstone home to their never-arbitrarily-chosen wardrobes or hairstyles, including McBride's curly pompadour (with graying mutton chops for gravity) and Devine's youth-group-friendly spikiness. McBride is fascinated with the ugly side of masculine competitiveness — peacocking stripped to its subtext-free essence via male full-frontal nudity — and much of the show's humor comes from the unfiltered and uncouth bantering and from a cartoonish escalation of tension.

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