By Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times
“The Righteous Gemstones,” which premieres Sunday, is the third HBO series created or co-created by and starring Danny McBride. It’s not every comic actor who can make that claim. Indeed, if you exclude Chris Lilley’s single-season Australian imports, which most readers will not be able to name, there is only Danny McBride.
Focusing on a family of Carolina televangelists, “Gemstones” follows “Eastbound & Down” (2009-13), which tracked the fall and rise (and fall and rise) of former major league baseball pitcher Kenny Powers, and “Vice Principals” (2016-17), in which McBride’s Neal Gamby schemes to become a high school principal. It completes what McBride has described as a “misunderstood angry man trilogy,” though I would argue that if anyone misunderstands Kenny Powers, Neil Gamby and Jesse Gemstone, it is Kenny, Neil and Jesse.
All are set in the South — and McBride, a Georgia-born Virginian, ramps up the accents for cornpone comic effect. All revel in and repudiate a certain confused masculinity. Fatherhood, complicated by separation, is an issue in all three series. (McBride’s own parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade.) Kenny Powers gets a family, loses and regains it; Neil Gamby, divorced, is desperate to connect with his daughter; Jesse Gemstone has forbidden any mention of his oldest son (Skyler Gisondo), who left the family to pursue a career as a Hollywood stuntman.
PAIN AND HUMOR
The television series are tightly plotted in a way that draws you from one episode to the next, and fine performances, from players well and less well known, strike individual notes that keep characters free from cliche. I don’t think they’re funny, exactly, though every so often a bit of slapstick or a throwaway aside will make me laugh out loud. But it’s not so much because the jokes are bad — though they sometimes are — as that laughter doesn’t seem to be quite the appropriate response to all the pain and humiliation.
The series do achieve something like depth over the long run, and if it’s only a matter of the characters becoming familiar, that also makes them more recognizably human — more understandable, more forgivable. There is a carefully placed hole at the center of many McBride characters — not just the ones he plays but most of the ones he writes — that only love can fill.
I can see why some might find McBride difficult.
Even when well-intentioned, his characters tend to be mired in old ways of thinking, which means there are elements of machismo, misogyny and racism in the humor.
Though we’re clearly meant to find these attitudes pathetic — these are creatures of arrested development, children in the bodies of adults — the jokes still take some processing, and the irony may be lost on some.
“Gemstones” differs from McBride’s earlier series in that it’s very much an ensemble piece.
Televangelism is an easy target. But for all their hypocrisies, their failings, their foul-mouthed bickering, their materialism and sense of privilege, their doing unto others before others can do unto them, the Gemstones are never depicted as charlatans: They are bad Christians, not insincere ones.
But religion is not mocked, nor are the family’s followers. (Before they divorced, McBride’s parents taught Bible classes using puppets; there is a passing nod to that in the show.) As a tale of rivalrous dysfunction in a powerful family, it could be set in anywhere; indeed, “The Righteous Gemstones” quite resembles another current HBO series, “Succession,” except that “Gemstones” has something like heart, a flicker of soul.