Praise the Lord: in-your-face mega-church comedy The Righteous Gemstones returns
Danny McBride’s cast of in-your-face mega-church leaders returns for the third season of The Righteous Gemstones. Filled with big comedy set pieces, guest appearances, and banger earworms, there is nothing this series can’t do, Dominic Corry preaches.
There is simply nothing else on television like The Righteous Gemstones, and every time I watch it, I’m so grateful that it exists. I thank God.
The in-your-face comedy series follows the extreme ups and downs of the titular dynasty, the heads of an extremely successful evangelical “mega-church”, one of the biggest in America.
Season two ended with widowed patriarch and church founder (alongside his late wife Aimee-Leigh) Eli Gemstone (John Goodman, single-handedly grounding all the ridiculousness around him with his earthy presence) ceding control of his empire to his three adult (well, sort of) children: eldest son Jesse (played by creator Danny McBride, who co-writes and directs many of the episodes), long-overlooked middle child Judy (Edi Patterson, casually delivering one of the most committed comedic performances of all time) and confused youngest son Kelvin (Adam Devine from Pitch Perfect and Workaholics).
As season three begins, the three Gemstone heirs are flailing wildly in their task of living up to Eli’s leadership, and the church is suffering for it. Plus they’re each dealing with concerns of their own: Jesse’s middle child Pontius (Kelton Dumont) has gone full dirtbag; Judy’s marriage to the delicate BJ (Tim Baltz) faces an infidelity threat, and Kelvin is forced to consider life without longtime “best bud” Keefe (Tony Cavalero).
Meanwhile, Uncle Baby Billy (Walton Goggins, standing out in a show populated entirely by standouts) isn’t content with his cushy life as a performer at Zion’s Landing, the Gemstone’s new ostentatious seaside resort, and has big plans for a game show. Plus Eli is forced to address his relationship with his long-estranged sister, May-May (Kristen Johnson from 3rd Rock from the Sun), which involves drama with her militia survivalist ex Peter (Steve Zahn), and her two sons played by Lukas Haas and strongman-turned-actor Robert Oberst.
The Righteous Gemstones has always had a very strong guest-star game. Whenever anyone new shows up, you immediately find yourself exclaiming, “Of course ______ would be in this show!” Previous highlights include Eric Roberts, Jason Schwartzman, Eric André and a hilarious season two-ending cameo from a former superstar who rarely acts. Plus M. Emmet Walsh. Ain’t nobody else puttin’ mother-effin’ M. Emmet Walsh (yes, he’s still alive) in TV shows these days.
Anyway, I uttered the above exclamation A LOT while taking in season three. All the guest stars fit perfectly into the show’s heightened sense of reality, even the World’s Strongest Man. Other notables popping in this season include Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) as a wronged wife, Stephen Dorff (Blade) as a rival preacher, and the great Shea Wigham (Perry Mason, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse), in Baby Billy-style old age make-up, as a fickle stockcar driver.
As you may have discerned from the plot threads detailed above, the season three stakes aren’t quite as life-and-death as they were in season two, which teased a massive bloodbath in its first episode and spend the whole season building up to it, among other things.
As fun as season two’s craziness was, I’m appreciating how the show is deriving more of its conflict from relationships this time around. The characters here are big enough to sustain that, we don’t need mortal peril for things to seem dire.
Organised religion, especially the kind depicted here, is a pretty wide (and often deserving) target, but The Righteous Gemstones isn’t focused on taking down evangelicals. Although it’s hardly a complimentary portrayal, the show treats its setting more as an odd and specific environment for platforming crazy characters and full-on set-pieces.
And those big set-pieces are truly impressive, which highlights how at a time when Hollywood seems less interested in making big-screen comedies than ever before, McBride and longtime collaborators Jody Hill (who has a small onscreen role as one of Jesse’s circle of oddball friends) and David Gordon Green, have crafted a truly cinematic series. A lot of TV resembles a padded-out movie these days, but I’ll take every extra second of the Gemstones that I can get, thank you very much.
McBride’s brash comedic sensibility is obviously informed by the legendary comedies of yore, but he somehow stands alone in the contemporary comedy landscape. While everyone else is tip-toeing around, afraid of who they might offend, McBride and friends fly closer to the sun than any other comedy I can think of, and the show is all the more glorious for it.
I think he gets away with it partly because you can sense the character-forward spirit of the weirdo ’70s movies and bold ’80s comedies he clearly reveres, partly because he’s so willing to make himself look like an idiot, and partly because the show is just that darn funny.
It’s a magnificent argument for sticking to your guns. Throughout his three TV shows—Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals and now Gemstones—McBride keeps upping the ante and keeps outdoing himself. He should only ever work for himself. The idea of someone telling him what to do gives me hives. Long may the McBride fiefdom reign.
One other aspect of season three that demands pointing out is how the show has done the impossible and created another amazing fake hit song.
In season one, audiences warmed to Misbehavin’, the supposed hit song performed by Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (played in flashbacks [and in holographic form…] by Jennifer Nettles) and her brother Baby Billy. In the long and not-so-grand tradition of fictional hit songs (remember Drive Shaft from Lost?), Misbehavin’ stands high above the rest as a legit banger earworm. And now they’ve done it again.
In the third episode of season three, Baby Billy performs a song from his fictional repertoire called There Will Be A Payday and hot damn if it isn’t every bit as impressive as Misbehavin’. The power this show gains from these songs makes for an interesting parallel to how big a role music plays in these kinds of churches. There is nothing this show can’t do.
Also, everyone has a funny haircut. Everyone.