“Righteous Gemstones” trains some of comedy’s best weapons on one of its easiest targets: decadent peddlers of the prosperity gospel. It should be spectacular, and with a cast led by Danny McBride, Adam Devine, and John Goodman, anything less is inexcusable.
One episode in, it’s too early to tell whether the HBO newcomer will realize its full potential. The premiere, written and directed by McBride (who’s also the show’s creator), had its share of high points and lulls, which it to be expected as any show establishes its universe and finds its footing.
But whether “Righteous Gemstones” will blossom into the “Eastbound & Down”-level classic it should be remains unclear. Between the cast, subject material, and network, it has the right ingredients, so the odds are pretty favorable.
After losing its matriarch, the Gemstones confront existential threats to the family empire, including a damning video and a soon-to-be-neighboring preacher they turned into a rival. Ensconced on a sprawling compound, the squabbling progeny of televangelist Eli Gemstone steadily reveal themselves to be of both dubious competence and character.
That easy juxtaposition of success and ineptitude, faith and moral failure, is sometimes too obvious to be funny. Other times, as in the scene where McBride’s character deftly delivers an impassioned plea unaware of the male genitalia projected over his shoulder, the laughs are earned.
Predictably, McBride’s performance is a highlight. Devine is perfectly cast and Goodman plays the televangelist role with a compelling subtlety, no easy task given all the baggage of cultural preconceptions. (More from the luminous Jennifer Nettles, cast as Eli’s deceased wife, is eagerly awaited.)
Some critics are disappointed the show offers no tangible indictment of President Trump or the GOP. “At a moment when a valueless president somehow finds his staunchest defenders in America’s evangelical churches, one might hope for ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ to land a cleaner punch. Nobody comes to church hoping to hear a wishy-washy sermon,” read a review in the Washington Post.
IndieWire complained about “the lack of searing commentary,” which is odd considering the show is predicated on skewering the hypocrisy of prosperity preachers. The hunger for sneering mockery of the president’s evangelical support (which does lend itself to some legitimate gripes) seems to be strong. That doesn’t make it a necessary component for any good reason.
It’s true, the world of “Righteous Gemstones” is generalized, replete with the expected trappings of decadence: mansions, private jets, and fancy duds. A specific real-world parallel dynasty isn’t glaring. But that seems to be a strength, not a weakness of the satire, which is broadly applicable and not limited by a narrow focus. (The premiere included a brief bit on the abortion debate that was genuinely funny.) It’s actually the kind of show that could be weighed down by heavy-handed politics, especially since the prosperity gospel problem transcends Trump.
Ultimately, if “Righteous Gemstones” fails to offer a “searing commentary” on the nitty-gritty of bad theology or evangelical politics, it’ll be just fine—so long as it actually brings the laughs. If it doesn’t, the show will go down as a disappointment, and a baffling one at that.