It feels like forever since HBO introduced subscribers to the Gemstones, a family of Southern preachers with questionable levels of intellect and morality. Two and a half years since its first season ended in 2019, “The Righteous Gemstones” returns with a clever nine-episode sophomore outing that’s sharply written and often very funny. It has some patchy inconsistency at times with its plotting, but an inspired array of guest stars help to hold together this “Southern Succession”. Star/co-creator Danny McBride recently said that he wants this show to go on for years—much longer than “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals.” Let’s just hope it’s not quite so long between seasons if that’s the case.
McBride stars as Jesse Gemstone, the oldest child of Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), the head of a series of megachurches that’s known around the world. In ways that draw the line between this show and a little HBO hit called “Succession” even more than season one, Jesse and his wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) have started to plan for his ascendance to Eli’s throne, but daddy’s not quite ready to say goodbye. Wanting an empire of his own, Jesse partners with a West Coast preacher named Lyle Lissons (Eric André) to build a religious vacation destination named Zion’s Landing (think Sandals but with more Jesus), but daddy doesn’t approve. Meanwhile, Eli’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Junior (Eric Roberts), a former ally from Memphis who knows where the bodies are buried. Those bodies might be of interest to an investigative reporter named Thaniel (Jason Schwartzman), who is trying hard to be the Ronan Farrow of the world of televangelists. It's an inspired trio of guest stars, all of whom totally get the McBride sense of humor.
That’s just the beginning. Judy (the hysterical and arguably series-stealing Edi Patterson) gets two main arcs this season: the first with husband BJ (Tim Baltz), who she’s trying to bring more into the church, and the second with the return of Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) and his pregnant wife Tiffany (Valyn Hall). Both Billy and Eli are forced to face dark chapters of their past this season, although the Goggins subplot this year is a bit of a disappointment compared to the first. It’s a tad overly cruel in its caricature of the uneducated Southerner with Tiffany in ways that the smart writing on the show often avoids (and Goggins doesn’t even return until the fourth episode). Also a bit disappointing is the arc for the third Gemstone child, Kelvin (Adam DeVine), who has trained a group of musclebound disciples who basically end up turning on him. The jokes here feel repetitive and often flat.
Luckily, the writing on “The Righteous Gemstones” is so densely packed that every subplot that sags is balanced by one that works. The season even gets surprisingly action-packed with a number of scenes in the back half that are like an ‘80s Cannon movie (that's a good thing). What I admire most about “The Righteous Gemstones” is how often the writing veers left from the expected punchline into something entirely random. McBride and directors David Gordon Green and Jody Hill are constantly playing that game—setting up a character, scene, or subplot in a way that feels like it has a predictable destination and then ending up somewhere else entirely, and usually somewhere much funnier than you considered.
What has always impressed me about the McBride/Hill/Green HBO shows is their confidence. They never feel like they're desperately trying to get a joke or force you to like a character or even the show as a whole. You’re either with the Gemstones or you’re not. It’s ultimately a comedy about a family that bands together against all outside forces whether they be violent faces from the past, a nosy reporter, or a shady dealmaker. The Gemstones keep going. It’s another way in which they’re like the Roy family of “Succession” this year—another family that understands each other in ways that no outsider ever could. Well, maybe Jesse Gemstone could relate.
Whole season screened for review.