First, we had obnoxious baseball washout Kenny Powers in the HBO comedy “Eastbound & Down” from 2009 to 2013. Then, petty-minded would-be high school autocrat Neal Gamby in “Vice Principals” from 2016 to 2017.
And now, get ready to meet bombastic televangelist Jesse Gemstone in “The Righteous Gemstones,” a dark, raunchy comedy series premiering Sunday night on HBO.
Danny McBride, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, who met while studying filmmaking at the UNC School of the Arts, are collaborating once again on this third HBO comedy, which like the first two manages to spin comedic gold from seemingly unlikable characters played by McBride.
In “Gemstones,” Jesse is the heir apparent to a televangelism dynasty run by a hedonistic and sometimes corrupt family. John Goodman plays the patriarch, Eli, with Adam DeVine as Jesse’s ambitious brother Kelvin and Edi Patterson as Judy, the sarcastic middle sister who struggles for respect.
They live in luxury, using their megachurch to goad their followers into tithing ever-increasing amounts of money so they can run a fleet of private jets, share a compound with mansions for each family member, and expand their
empire by encroaching into other territories, clashing with smaller churches as they skim their flocks.
Meanwhile, Jesse must contend with a blackmailer who has incriminating video from a wild party; Kelvin, the church’s youth minister, desperately wants to be respected but falls victim to snarky remarks from his older brother and is generally treated like a child; Judy is being ignored by her patriarchal family and relegated to unimportant tasks, but has dreams and schemes of her own; and Eli is aging and worries that his children aren’t worthy to carry on his crusade and that none of them is living up to the legacy of his late wife.
Speaking to journalists at the Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles last month, McBride said that his goal in creating the series wasn’t to mock religion but instead to lampoon hypocrisy and what happens when people don’t practice what they literally preach. McBride grew up in a Baptist household and his mother — like the deceased mom in the Gemstone family — did a puppet ministry when he was growing up. But in the show, McBride avoids getting too specific about the religious denomination the Gemstones belong to.
Jody Hill, in addition to producing the series and writing and directing some episodes, has a supporting role as Levi, a long-suffering member of Jesse’s entourage. Green also directs some episodes in addition to producing.
Cassidy Freeman plays Jesse’s wife, a seemingly vacant, submissive “Stepford Wife” who shows surprising depth as the series develops. They have three sons in various stages of rebellion against their repressive parents. And Walton Goggins, who co-starred as McBride’s nemesis-turned-reluctant-ally in “Vice Principals,” has a scene-stealing recurring role as Eli’s unctuous brother-in-law, “Baby Billy Freedman,” a silver-haired, oily pastor who wants to convince people he’s not a con artist but very obviously is one.
But the star of the show is McBride, who created the series and also directs and writes some episodes. Jesse is perhaps even more bombastic and swaggering than Kenny Powers or Neal Gamby, and like those characters has a mix of righteous indignation, defensiveness, and jealousy, with a touch of self-loathing thrown in for good measure.
Jesse bullies and tries to manipulate everyone around him except the father he lives in fear of, but has moments of self-realization that he is not living up to the spiritual alter-ego his congregation believes in. That gives the character a touch of pathos that counterbalances the awful things he sometimes does — and some of his actions are truly reprehensible.
“Gemstones” was filmed and is set in South Carolina, with principal photography in the Charleston area. McBride and Green moved there after falling in love with the area several years earlier when they were filming “Vice Principals.” The debut season will consist of nine episodes, starting Sunday with an hour-long premiere and later episodes that run 30 minutes or longer.