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Let's Hope 'The Righteous Gemstones' is More Parody Than Reality
August 18, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Televangelists might look like easy marks for satirists. They are not. 

Like soap operas, televangelists go so far over the top they almost preempt satire. Think of any televangelist you’ve ever seen and ask yourself if it would be possible to satirize even the hair, never mind the oily tone of the message. 

Danny McBride, (top) creator, director, costar and writer of the new HBO comedy series The Righteous Gemstones, which launches Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, recognizes the problem and takes a different tack. 

His fictional Gemstone family, which operates a sinfully lucrative and increasingly dysfunctional teleministry, doesn’t invite mockery as much as incredulity. 

While co-founder and patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman, right) has a clear focus and a savvy, cynical sense of exactly how the God Biz operates, his three children and the various friends and employees of Gemstone Enterprises include bulbs so dim it’s amazing the whole show isn’t filmed in the dark. 

In that sense, The Righteous Gemstones owes less to any previous satire of the televangelism game than to Fargo, where the viewer always wonders how people this dumb could get away with the things they do for longer than it takes to recite the 23rdPsalm.  

The primary idiots include all three of Eli’s children: neurotic, angry older son Jesse (McBride), neurotic, insecure younger son Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and neurotic, bitter daughter Judy (Edi Patterson). 

All the kids have gone into the family business, despite having no visible moral character, never mind any sense of having been called by the Lord.

They’ve been called by the god of cash – lots and lots of cash – that supports the Gemstone family in high style and makes them all feel more important than, oh, say, the wretches whose souls they make their money saving.

When the cameras aren’t rolling, and the mics aren’t on, the Gemstones are callous, arrogant, foul-mouthed, abusive, greedy and just generally rather un-Christian. 

While that might lay the groundwork for satire, those elements feel less like a punchline than simply part of the premise. Of course these people are self-serving hypocrites. What did you expect?

Eli sees this dysfunction and attributes it largely to the death of his wife Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles). Co-founder of the Gemstones empire, she also apparently held the bumbling next generation together. 

Eli may be at least partly right about that. Still, the clips of her old performances that he compulsively watches on VHS tapes late at night suggest she’s as hollow as the rest of them.

The conversation in the Gemstone family, to underscore that point, revolves maybe 95% around the preservation of the empire. So naturally, our story moves directly into a situation where an unlikely Joshua shows up with a trumpet that could make all the walls come tumbling down.  

That’s when The Righteous Gemstones begins channeling Fargo.Mild spoiler alert: The empire survives thanks to a blunt and horrifying yet somehow hilarious escape. 

Things continue in that spirit for six episodes, and while an hour an episode sometimes feels long for a show that’s way more comedy than drama, McBride creates a steady flow of situations in which the characters become more deadly serious as their actions become more outlandish. 

Whether the righteous Gemstones become more absurd than their real-life televangelical counterparts, let’s assume that God only knows. 

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