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The Righteous Gemstones Treads Familiar Ground in Season Three

Do you miss watching three spoiled, immature, and psychologically stunted siblings squabble over their right to their father’s fortune every Sunday? Fill the “Succession”-shaped hole in your heart with “The Righteous Gemstones,” which returns to HBO on Sunday for its third season. 

Created by and starring Danny McBride, the series follows Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine), the three Gemstone children who would argue about the existence of gravity if they thought it would give them a leg up in controlling their father’s evangelical church empire. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman, wonderful in the role), their legendary preacher father, now retired, continues to mourn his late wife Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles, who pops up in deeply memorable flashbacks) while struggling to get his children to work together to run the church. 

Although the core cast is incredible, the series’ supporting actors truly help the material shine. In Season Two, Jason Schwartzman and Eric André joined the show, providing its biggest laughs. This time, the roster includes Kristen Johnston as May-May Montgomery, Eli’s estranged sister; Steve Zahn as Peter, Eli’s ex-con brother-in-law, who runs a vaguely libertarian militia; Stephen Dorff as head of the Simkins clan, three siblings—albeit a calm, confident, and non-dysfunctional trio—who pose a financial threat to the Gemstones; and best of all, Shea Whigham as Dusty Daniels, a wealthy race car driver who is debating which megachurch will receive the rights to his estate in his will, complete with a trademarked catchphrase “Hoowhee, sucker!” Zahn and Dorff appear to be having more fun than just about anyone on TV this year, and it’s impossible not to smile when they appear. And don’t worry, Baby Billy (Walton Goggins), Aimee-Leigh’s brother, is back this season too, full of new harebrained schemes that are just as delightful as they are witless.

By now, “The Righteous Gemstones” has developed a bit of a formula. I don’t have a problem with that, but the repetitive nature does strike me as very safe. The siblings fight, and Dad is disappointed; Martin Imari (Gregory Alan Williams, who deserves more to do), the family’s fixer, shows up to shake his head or dispense hugs. Only when the Gemstones are attacked by outside forces do they band together and save each other. Don’t get me wrong: this continues to be one of HBO’s best series, with excellent production value, vivid costume work, and of course, great writing. But I wonder if the show isn’t capable of more. Its first season, in hindsight, now feels darker than what followed, and even though Season Three takes a few big swings in the finale, it doesn't have long enough to develop them into something bigger and more meaningful.

Still, there are plenty of stellar small bits dolloped throughout this season. Jesse is inducted into the Cape and Pistol Society, a secretive club for the leaders of evangelical empires in America. They carry ancient-looking pistols but are forbidden from doing evil; their ostentatious royal blue capes are fringed in gold thread and lead to physical comedy that perfectly undercuts the group’s self-importance. The society’s ceremonies and rules are reminiscent of “Eyes Wide Shut,” and that comparison alone is enough to make the audience laugh. Zahn gets in a few sharp one-liners and practically steals the series by honking the nose of BJ (Tim Baltz, deadpan king) at a family dinner. Episode four is told entirely in flashback and is a standout this season due to David Gordon Green’s pitch-perfect direction.

“Succession” was wise never to psychoanalyze its characters by taking us into their pasts (minus the magnificent opening credits sequence), but on “The Righteous Gemstones,” such a device is necessary. Judy’s bizarre behaviors when it comes to men go back further than we realize; Kelvin was a sweet, relatively normal boy till Judy bullied him into oblivion; and Jesse has pretty much always been a moron, although the love of his wife, whom he appears to have met in college, seems to ground him. Additionally, the flashback episode is a wonderful window into the talents of the teenagers who play the young Gemstones. J. Gaven Wilde, who plays a teenage Jesse, is one to watch. He is careful not to mimic McBride; his cadence and body language create enough room for adult Jesse’s millimeter-wide short fuse and unbridled ego.

The most interesting element is easily McBride’s writing—he’s listed as the co-writer of every episode this season—and his nuanced exploration of American masculinity. Kenny Powers (“Eastbound and Down”) was a very specific type of working-class white man, crazed by machismo but ultimately not irredeemable. I can tell you from experience that people like Neal Gamby of “Vice Principals” not only exist, they are in charge of your children at school. The throughline between Jesse, Kenny, and Neal is that they have been conditioned to want things that make them deeply unhappy, and they want approval from people they despise. Deep down—really, really, really deep down—they crave love but don’t always know how to get there without intense trials of their own worthiness. Jesse Gemstone is no different. 

This season, Jesse is pitted against his wife Amber (the lovely Cassidy Freeman), whose $500 at-home marriage counseling kit, in contrast to Jesse’s various business ventures, is a big hit. Judy’s (already deeply weird) marriage to BJ takes a turn, and Kelvin has some soul-searching to do about his ambiguous but sweet bond with Keefe (Tony Cavalero), his assistant youth pastor and spiritual protégé. Unlike the Roys on “Succession,” these are not bad people. They do bad things but ultimately stand up for what is right, even if they can never quite do without the enormous wealth and privilege that shields them from real-life consequences. 

If a lesser show had pulled out a similarly repetitive third season, I would be worried about its future and maybe even stop watching. But given the quality of McBride’s body of work, and the contributions of a cast of this caliber, I’m not giving up on the Gemstones any time soon. If Season Three feels staid, perhaps that’s because the real fireworks are scheduled for Season Four. Like the parishioners who auto-pay their tithe, I have faith.

Entire season was screened for review. Season Three of "The Righteous Gemstones" premieres on HBO and Max on June 18th. 

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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