When The Righteous Gemstones debuts on Sunday night, it will let John Goodman once again do what he does best: Make us laugh. In the new comedy series from Danny McBride, Goodman plays Eli Gemstone, a pious televangelist at the head of a Christian megachurch. It’s a brash satire in the style of McBride’s previous work for HBO (Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down), and it promises to showcase Goodman in the type of role in which he excels, but for which he's seldom fully appreciated.
The Righteous Gemstones deserves praise simply for placing Goodman at the epicenter of an all out comedy, giving the actor a measure of narrative devotion, not just from his doting, dumbass children, but also from his massive religious following. It's the type of part for which he's perfectly suited, even if his performances don't always get the kind of acclaim they deserve. Perhaps it's due to his omnipresence: from Roseanne and The Conners, to voiceover roles, to charming bit parts, to his 13 hosting appearances on Saturday Night Live, John Goodman has worked a lot. His dulcet tones soothe us, his capacity for the bizarre always surprises us, and yet he is so rarely recognized for it.
What did he get his solitary Emmy for? Not for his years on Roseanne, or one of his many SNL gigs, but for playing an ornery judge in a guest role on... Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? A wholly forgotten win for a mostly forgotten series. Perhaps it's appropriate that Goodman was honored for the kind of killer throwaway bit he’s always done so well, but we love him most for the type of work Gemstones has to offer. It's the kind of role the Coen Brothers have used him in to such memorable effect in films like The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Imagine if Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak found Jesus, started a church that made millions, and took an anger management course, and you’ll get an idea of what Gemstones lets him do.
Our love for Goodman’s comedic gifts formed while watching him as Dan Conner on Roseanne, a role that won him a Golden Globe -- his only major acting prize for the series. But after the 2018 reboot was undone by a barrage of racist twitter vitriol by Roseanne Barr, Dan Conner's melancholy return in The Conners has failed to deliver what we've always loved about the character and star.
In contrast, the best moments of The Righteous Gemstones belong to Goodman. As we've come to expect from McBride, the show's jokes are broad, but Goodman lands even bigger laughs with his droll delivery and masterfully subtle gestures. It’s clear he’ll be the hilarious calm to the rest of the show’s manic craziness -- its confident but cherished center.
He also gets to borrow from Dan Conner’s place in our minds as a father figure, even if Gemstones’ more acerbic humor means he won’t be nearly as warm. It’s like building off of those character roles he played so well in the Coen brothers’ films, only this time he’s venerated, rather than in a position of equal standing to his costars. In short, The Righteous Gemstones has all of the components necessary for a brilliant John Goodman performance, and if this week's premiere is any indication, it delivers on that promise.
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Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.