Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from this week's series premiere of The Righteous Gemstones.
The opening scene of HBO’s new series The Righteous Gemstones takes place at night, during a neon-lit 24-hour marathon baptism of 5,000 in Chengdu, China. Pink and aqua lights bathe the three men who lead the televangelist Gemstone family — Eli (John Goodman), Jesse (Danny McBride), and Kelvin (Adam Devine) — making their matching white clothes glow as they dip converts in waist-high water amid floating lanterns. When the wave pool is accidentally turned on, the serene scene turns into a garish nightmare as ultra-high-bpm music blares, spotlights dance, and the camera dips above and below the water surface, capturing hapless believers as they’re churned about.
You can imagine the logistics of filming a scene like this, but in an economical minute and 45 seconds, writer/director Danny McBride pulls it off with great visual flair: a large-scale, important event upended by stupid human error. It’s funny. And it’s a signal that even though it’s going to traffic in some rude, lowbrow comedy, just as McBride’s previous series Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals did, this show isn't going to skimp on production. McBride and the two executive producers who have frequently directed episodes of his earlier projects, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, have a history of elevating their comedies to startling effect.
With Eastbound & Down, they turned the story of a drugged-out, asshole ex-MLB pitcher into a portrait of a scared, aging white American male who has to figure out what love means when he’s no longer famous. McBride’s tricky performance aside, it was Eastbound’s consistently beautiful, swing-for-the-fences filmmaking that told us there was more to Kenny Powers than his foul-mouthed bluster.
In Vice Principals, they ruminated on the power of friendship between two desperate, power-hungry high-school administrators who tend to their domestic wounds by wielding power over teenagers and teachers. Pep rallies and school fights became tightly choreographed ballets with a heavy drum corps soundtrack.
Here, with only one episode under our belts, it’s not entirely clear whether the formula will work again. In both Eastbound and Vice Principals, the characters were middle class (with Powers disgraced and forced to go back to his hometown to teach), and there was a purposeful sense of punching up: disenchanted, unempowered, middle-aged, white guys who felt it all slipping away, lashing out at systems that no longer favored them. That the creative team treated these losers as worth celebrating showed a sense of counterculture empathy. And those shows indulged the tiny triumphs of these characters, whether it was Powers finding Zen atop a water-spouting jet ski, or McBride and the great Walton Goggins misguidedly trashing their boss’s home with cathartic glee. These were not heroic men, but they were still on heroes journeys.
Righteous Gemstones, as pretty as it is, comes packaged with a few liabilities out of the gate. It’s about incredibly wealthy, powerful people doing very crappy things to each other, but also to everyone less powerful, which automatically makes it less funny, and its rough humor harder to stomach.
The show is making fun of televangelists, a concept that would seem to have passed its expiration date in the late 90s. And although it arrives at the perfect time to dissect the hypocrisy of some evangelicals who continue to support very un-Christianlike public policy, the show doesn’t go anywhere near politics — instead, the satire is chiefly about how these buffoons are so far gone from practicing what they preach.
The pilot episode is largely about a video showing Jesse snorting cocaine amid bare breasts and penises at a party. Does the show not recognize that in 2019, public figures get away with far, far more than that and remain in positions of power through force of denial, false equivalence, and legal action? Cocaine and nudie-party scandals are so 2006..
What Righteous Gemstones does have going for it is the confidence that McBride and his producers bring to the filmmaking. The one-hour premiere is filled with Wes Anderson-aping, perfectly framed shots, like one establishing the family’s collection of private jets.
The Gemstones' compound is shown in a montage, with a soaring tracking shot that includes a gun range, an amusement park, and acres and acres of lush, fertile land.
Kelvin, the youngest preacher in the family, lives in an adolescent McMansion, surrounded by videogames, a mini scooter, a ridiculous poster for Timecop, and a pharaoh statue, for some reason.
In one surprisingly tense sequence, a blackmailer’s red van circles Jesse’s sports car, for no real reason other than to create unease.
The Gemstones megachurch history is shown in a series of smart cuts of photos, artifacts from the family’s years as ministers, and, yes, religious puppets.
When the family arrives at a restaurant for their regular Sunday lunch, they don’t just walk in, they stride in with the type of slow-motion musical fanfare typically reserved for astronauts on their way to a shuttle launch.
The reason to watch Gemstones, or to continue with it if you were disappointed with the premiere, is the faith that these filmmakers will be able to find depth in the lives of these cartoonish hucksters, as they did on their previous HBO shows.
So let us pray that this goes somewhere, and soon. Their track record for finding treasure in the trashiest of American cultures is very good, but shaping the travails of this spoiled, rotten family of hypocrites into peak TV poetry may be McBride & Company's biggest challenge yet.
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Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG.