The penises are back. After packing a full-frontal d*ck shot into every episode of the first season, The Righteous Gemstones shied away from male nudity in its second season, opting instead for a different provocation: a relentless focus on gnarly, plot-driven violence. Many characters were murdered onscreen, and the ones who weren’t often showed up drenched in blood. Season 3 features both flavors, sometimes simultaneously: headkills, d*ck pics, torture sequences, nude brawls. A man gets his ear chopped off. A cop gets brained. Cars do pinwheeling frontflips.
It bears reminding that this is a comedy, starring some of the actual funniest people on earth. There are few comic actors working more skilled at the line level than Danny McBride, a guy who can deliver a simple “motherf*cker” with a conviction that borders on the sublime. In point of fact, one of the only people that can match him in this regard is Edi Patterson, here playing his sister Judy Gemstone, whose perverse blend of confidence, venality, and thinly veiled panic should make her the centerpiece of the show.
But that’s not the type of show this is. The Righteous Gemstones increasingly shelves its characters in favor of a relentless plottiness; it is less of a dark comedy than it is an outright neo noir. Now in its third season, the show has only settled further into itself. The same small group of directors — David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and McBride — helm every episode, reveling in whiplash tonal shifts, tasteful needle drops, and well-executed set pieces. Last season’s plots have been resolved in favor of a new set of traumas and antagonists, including a set of relatives whose brand of Christianity is more woodsy and militant than the Gemstones’. Other subplots only steer the characters further into depravity: Judy’s infidelity drives long-suffering husband BJ to violent extremes, Jesse joins an Eyes Wide Shut-style secret society called Cape & Pistol, and Kelvin (Adam Devine) is growing deranged from the fumes of burning sex toys (long story).
There’s a lot going on, and everything is consequential. Still, it’s hard to say this show’s appeal is its plot. Revisiting the first two seasons’ narratives can feel like flipping through the pages of a dream journal, resurrecting instantly vanished memories of cyberpunk motorcycle gangs and pro-wrestling intrigue. The difference between Gemstones and other plot-driven half-hour “comedies” is its insistence upon its world and the consequentiality of its characters’ decisions. Community and Arrested Development, to pluck two examples, had screw-tight plots that were intended to sort of melt through the viewer’s mind, mere justification for writerly eccentricity, before resetting to status quo. This show’s two predecessors — Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals — felt a little more grounded and narrative, but it was all a springboard for comic performance; it was the sort of setting that teed up Will Ferrell well.
But in The Righteous Gemstones, problems lead to more problems, tension to cliffhangers. Perhaps its nearest analog, in the way it renders comic acting subservient to directorial tone, is HBO’s recently retired Barry. But there was a dark purposefulness to that show’s march into oblivion, the way its structures and even premise disintegrated over four seasons, that’s absent from Gemstones. The Righteous Gemstones is “about” a lot of things; its d*cks and violence and for-profit Christian megachurches all point to a sort of commentary about a sickness at the core of American culture. But if it’s saying something about conservatism, it’s an older brand of it, one that seems almost quaint relative to the nihilism and conspiracy theories that dominate the modern right.
Which is to say that, three seasons deep, The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t really have a point, in terms of satire. Its biggest joke is its insistence upon itself: that its world is real. When Amber Gemstone (Cassidy Freeman) introduces a couples-therapy system early in the third season, you can rest assured that you will see its branding and mechanics explained a few episodes later. Many of the season’s richest jokes lie in production design: best-in-class costuming, from Judy’s sequins to BJ’s couture to Keefe’s BDSM fishnets; ostentatiously in-depth sets, the megachurch’s labyrinthine hallways yielding trampoline rooms and food courts; and, of course, all that violence, as unsentimental in its realism as any on television.
Is it worth clarifying that the third season is also gut-bustingly funny? Because, sweet Jesus, it is — of course Danny McBride and Edi Patterson getting backed into corners and barking their way out will be, of course Walton Goggins fumbling out of the bushes to pitch a TV show called “Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers” will be, of course one-off gags about his baby eating dirt elicit guffaws that the show moves on from almost instantly. Sometimes Gemstones feels like a show made by a bunch of very funny people who grew bored with being “just” funny — an idea reinforced by its creative team’s increasing success as horror filmmakers. Other times the show feels like it’s a longform experiment in attempting to create a new type of humor: a noxious blend of satire, violence, and unlikely craft that ferments into jokes that necessarily must happen quickly. Other times it feels like it can’t decide, and it leaves this ambivalence in the viewer’s head, unresolved. Maybe that’s the point: that very uncertainty. Whatever The Righteous Gemstones is, the third season is more of it, as confident and singular as ever.
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Sunday, June 18 at 10 P.M. ET with two episodes on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. You can see other things he writes on Twitter.