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'The Righteous Gemstones' Visited TCA to Discuss Their HBO Series
August 17, 2019  | By Roger Catlin  | 2 comments

From his brash Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down to his sinister Neal Gamby in Vice Principals, Danny McBride knows how to create a singular, self-serving, short-tempered, ego-driven character for HBO comedies. 

His latest character continues that tradition in spades — the over-the-top, conniving, hypocritical televangelist in his latest raucous series, The Righteous Gemstones (HBO, Sunday, 10 p.m. ET).

In it, he's part of a powerful evangelical family-turned-brand, spreading their reach from megachurch to converted shopping mall store — and one that's peopled with such comedy leaders as John Goodman as the paterfamilias (Eli Gemstone, top), Adam DeVine as the kid brother and youth pastor (Kelvin Gemstone, top), and Edi Patterson, a standout in Vice Principals, as their sister (Judi Gemstone, below). Also back is Walton Goggins, such a formidable foe in Vice Principals who portrays a silver-haired evangelical uncle named Baby Billy.

Reflecting the expanded cast is the broader field – the vast mansions in which the Gemstones live, the arena that serves as the megachurch, and especially the hint of violence that threatens and sometimes explodes in each episode (also in just about every episode - a flash of full-frontal nudity, a comedy provocation out of the playbook of Sacha Baron Cohen).

Even in this expanded, fertile world, McBride's Jesse Gemstone (top) remains the same kind of small-minded, paranoid, Southern-fried self, quick to lash out at his family or lie incessantly to save face.

But to McBride, there is a difference. 

While his Eastbound and Vice Principals characters had chips on their shoulders because "they believe that they were owed something more than what they got in life," he says, "The Gemstones have gotten exactly what they've always wanted in life, and we wanted to show how corrosive and damaged you could still be."

McBride and his cast appeared at the TV Critics Association (TCA) summer press tour to try to explain that they weren't exactly anti-religion.

"The goal of it is not to be like a takedown of anything," McBride (below) says. "When Hollywood decides to take on religion, I think they make the deathly mistake of, like, lampooning people for their beliefs, which is not something I'm really interested in doing. I don't know enough about what I believe in order to go and pass judgment on other people. So, for us, it's about lampooning a hypocrite, lampooning somebody who presents themselves one way and does not act that way underneath.

"And I don't think that's something that is just relevant to the world of religion and televangelism. I think it's something that's relevant in just the world we live in, that you're constantly being exposed to people who present themselves one way on social media but act another way in-person. I think hypocrisy is everywhere, and that's ultimately, I think, what this story is about, about what happens when you don't practice what you preach."

It's been an idea that's been kicking around since he and his collaborator, director David Gordon Green, moved down to Charleston, S.C., where Vice Principals was filmed. It seemed to trigger some memories. 

"I grew up in a very religious household. I grew up going to Baptist church. My mom did puppet ministry growing up," McBride says. 

"I wanted to make something that my aunt, who's a minister, could watch and find the humor in as well. And I don't think she'll appreciate the language or the drug use," he says, but adds "I’m setting a story in a world that she is familiar with, and ultimately it's a story about a family, and about a family who has grown very, very successful and have lost their way along the way, and I think that that's relatable. I think she would relate to it."

It rang true for Goodman (left), who will balance the show with his work on The Conners. "When I was a child, I grew up in Southern Baptist Church, and it was very emotionally involving," he says. "It was a lot of splendor and screaming up at the pulpit, and the rhythms of the speech, and it's something you wanted very badly to believe in. That's basically what I remember about it. That, and I would get swatted if I didn’t go."

"I grew up in the Catholic church," says DeVine, the star from Workaholics and the Pitch Perfect movies. "Honestly I was always jealous of my Christian friends that would go to a megachurch because it seemed way more fun."

The megachurch setting for the Gemstones was provided by the North Charleston Coliseum which was available as long as the local minor league hockey team, the Stingrays, weren’t in the playoffs. 

"Luckily, the team did not win," McBride says with a dark chuckle. "So, we got to shoot our show there."

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