Danny McBride is fascinated by idiots in positions of power who both abuse the privilege of their position and fall victim to the expectations associated with it. In “Eastbound & Down,” his best creation, Kenny Powers, fell from a high pedestal as a former baseball all-star reduced to a shadow of his former self back in his hometown. In “Vice Principals,” his Neal Gamby was a ball of insecurity who took out his own failures on the students and colleagues of the high school in which he worked. McBride’s latest creation, Jesse Gemstone of the new HBO comedy “The Righteous Gemstones” fits in perfectly with this coterie of cocky characters. The eldest son in a family of religious superstars, Jesse is only one of the memorable characters in an ambitious series that’s filled with them. In many ways, this is McBride’s most complex work to date, weaving in multiple subplots and maintaining, at its best, a dark comedy tonal balance that’s reminiscent of the Coen brothers or the more recent Coen-esque "I, Tonya." Now, what Joel and Ethan do is very hard to maintain, especially over multiple episodes, and it would be polite to say that “The Righteous Gemstones” gets uneven in terms of storytelling even as its characters keep it from ever getting boring.
McBride plays the most obnoxious Gemstone, but it’s a close contest. He’s the eldest child in a family of superstars meant to recall the famous religious faces like Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Joel Osteen. They have mega-churches throughout the South and a compound that includes multiple homes for all of the kids and its own amusement park. It’s eventually revealed that most of the wealth came from a child musical duo that featured Aimee Leigh Gemstone and her brother Baby Billy Freeman—think Donny and Marie Osmond. Aimee Leigh met the charismatic Eli (John Goodman), who helped turn their loyal following into a flock and eventually an empire.
When the show opens, Aimee Leigh has passed, leaving the Gemstones in a bit of turmoil. Eli leads the family, which includes Jesse, Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine). Jesse has a wife named Amber (Cassidy Freeman), and three children, although one of them is missing when the season starts, having left his annoying family behind. Kelvin has an awkward buddy living in his house named Keefe (Tony Cavalero), who left the Church of Satan behind for a righteous path; Judy hates being dismissed for her brothers and often takes it out on her partner BJ (Tim Baltz). An adult Baby Billy is unforgettably played by Walton Goggins (always kinda unforgettable) and Skyler Gisondo (“Booksmart”), Scott MacArthur (“The Mick”), and the great Toby Huss show up in future episodes. McBride directs the pilot but hands off to friends like David Gordon Green and Jody Hill for future episodes.
It’s undeniably a great cast in a fascinating world with talented filmmakers behind the camera, and so it’s startling how often “The Righteous Gemstones” feels like it’s just not quite coming together. It’s less laugh-out-loud funny than his other two HBO projects—which I think will be the biggest problem for most McBride fans—even if it is more ambitious. It’s nice that McBride cedes the spotlight more than he did in his other two projects, but he’s not as strong a writer for other characters as he is for himself, so when “Righteous Gemstones” loses its way, such as in a flashback episode that simply doesn’t work, you start hoping for Jesse to jump into a scene and liven it up, or even a guest appearance from Kenny Powers.
There are so many talented people involved in “Righteous Gemstones” that just watching them bounce off one another has inherent entertainment value, but I kept wanting to enjoy it all just a bit more, especially given the caliber of its ensemble. I haven’t seen all of the first season, and comedies have a habit of improving after their freshmen year as the ensemble gels completely and the writers learn how to time jokes for their cast. In other words, this is a decent show that could quickly become good or even great. All the pieces are there, even if McBride seems to be struggling at the beginning to put them together into one convincing sermon. Still, I wouldn't blame anyone for coming back every Sunday.
Six episodes screened for review.