UK TV review: The Righteous Gemstones
Katherine McLaughlin | On 12, Feb 2020Reading time: 3 mins
After the viciously funny Vice-Principals, Danny McBride reunites with Jody Hill and David Gordon Green for The Righteous Gemstones, a new series about a wealthy televangelist family, whose quest for the American Dream leads them down a dangerous path of hypocrisy and corruption.
John Goodman stars as the weary head of the globally successful mega church, Dr. Eli Gemstone, who, after the death of his beloved wife Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland), is struggling to keep his spoilt grown children in check. The crux of the story hinges on eldest brother Jesse (McBride, looking like a fat Elvis) trying to keep a video where he is snorting coke in a room full of sex workers under wraps from his wife and the public. After he gets his siblings, Kelvin (Adam Devine) and Judy (Edi Patterson), embroiled in a blackmail scandal to protect himself, a Fargo-esque comedy kicks off, leading to deadly consequences.
The show opens in modern-day China, where Jesse, Kelvin and Eli are conducting an absurd 24-hour baptism ceremony. It’s a debacle of side-splitting slapstick as the wave machine accidentally gets set off. Making their way home to the USA on their private jet the shame doesn’t last for too long, as they each enter their gated private mansions. Their exuberant wealth is something that is examined with the show flashing back to the 1980s, when their mother was alive and guiding her flock alongside her husband. Their equal gender billing is something that has been lost, with the men leaving their sister behind to be a secretary – something the show comments on with scathing humour.
Fame, fortune and the strange worship of wealthy stars are up on the chopping block, rather than religion. The church is run like a well-oiled machine, as well-meaning average Americans donate their hard-earned cash to a family of selfish phonies. The attention to detail when it comes to the community and the country and rock music scene associated with religion is portrayed with a dash of comedy, but it mostly lands on a pleasant note as it plays out each episode with earworms of famous Christian bangers. The focus is on how greed has spoilt the best of intentions, with behind-the-scenes money-counting sequences playing out like a Martin Scorsese gangster flick. The warring rivalry between congregations, with Dermot Mulroney playing an angry pastor who has been scorned by the Gemstones, plays out a little too broadly in the humour stakes.
You can see exactly where the show is headed from the start and the sibling rivalry, although amusing, never comes close to the thrills of watching Succession. The conclusion, too, is a little too neatly tied up, so most of the enjoyment comes from the watching the fine ensemble cast do what they do best. Their fully committed performances, complete with giant wigs and rhinestone costumes, make the most of these comically drawn characters. It’s a show packed full of riotous turns, especially from Walton Goggins as Baby Billy, the bitter younger brother of Aimee-Leigh. His wild antics, various sermons and downright terrible behaviour are a highlight. There’s also a hilarious and heartening narrative between Kelvin and Keefe (Tony Cavalero dressed as a Lost Boys reject), one of the souls he has saved. As an ex-Satan-worshipping goth, the show delves into Keefe’s world with relish, showing an off-the-charts count of flaccid penises and a joyful recreation of that Cybergoth dance party meme.
With The Righteous Gemstones, McBride and co show real affection for their well-written characters, despite their obviously awful views and behaviour. They refuse to cancel them and instead look to understand their motivations. The theme of grief is especially moving, and intentionally so, as shown through Goodman’s Eli, who sits in reflective quietude for his late wife and the bad decisions that have landed him with an overly needy and self-serving brood.
The Righteous Gemstones Season 1 is available on Sky Comedy. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.