In 2009, Danny McBride broke into cult stardom with “Eastbound & Down,” and 10 years later, it’s surprising how little has changed. Returning with another HBO comedy, “The Righteous Gemstones,” the co-creator stars as an obnoxious, fame-obsessed fool facing sudden hardship after a life of squandered luxury. McBride’s latest certainly has a bigger budget and more mainstream appeal than his breakout effort, but fans of his original series (as well as his two-season follow-up, “Vice Principals”) should be thrilled with the upgrades.
Despite the broader scale and expanded cast, “The Righteous Gemstones” is still a Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green project through and through. Anyone frustrated by their previous efforts will find issues again here — especially in how politely they poke at a dangerous religious machine — but, by and large, the new HBO comedy proves surprisingly endearing in its approach to a fractured family and offers an idyllic setting for its amazing, ever-growing cast to preach their gospel.
McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, the oldest sibling in a family of obscenely wealthy televangelists. Led by their father, Eli (John Goodman), the Gemstones are world-famous ministers in charge of a weekly church broadcast as well as a slew of megachurches. Jesse is the unofficial second-in-command, doing as he pleases but always obeying the word of his Lord, Eli, while trying to stay one step ahead of his little brother, Kelvin (Adam Devine), whose youth ministry leadership is one of the family company’s most successful new ventures.
Impatiently waiting in the wings is Judy (Edi Patterson), the only daughter in the family who’s kept off the stage despite her pleas for more responsibility. It’s pretty clear she’s relegated to fourth fiddle because of her gender, but Eli insists she’s not ready, while her brothers simply mock her insignificance. Patterson pivots between desperation and fury with a wicked glee, as the amped-up Judy clearly doesn’t know what to do to get ahead in this family. The actor’s manic energy keeps you guessing as to what Judy might try next, which helps keep her an exciting wild card in this already unpredictable family.
Patterson’s performance is just one of many worth mentioning, as “The Righteous Gemstones” creates a world where extreme wealth is lampooned by extreme behavior. The opening sequence finds Eli, Jesse, and Kelvin trying to baptize 5,000 people in Chengdu, China, standing in the middle of a massive swimming pool. Drifting five feet apart from one another, shouting insulting advice about the best way to save souls, the scene quickly sets up the comic dynamic: Jesse is an instigator, always trying to criticize his brother or brag about his accomplishments. (“Everybody in your line keeps getting water up their nose — nobody’s coughing [in my line].”) Few people can play that role better than McBride, who thrives as a loud-mouthed idiot, and Kelvin can’t help but respond, even though he’s a calmer, more rationale family member.
Eli is just tired of their antics, and Goodman shines brightest when the single father mourns the loss of his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles). He doesn’t know how to keep the family together without her, and plenty of flashbacks build Aimee-Leigh into an endearing force of her own. Nettles finds her heart and keeps her grounded — the sole self-aware member of the Gemstone bunch — while other supporting players endear themselves by going big. Walton Goggins steals the show — yet again, for anyone who watched “Vice Principals” — when he pops up in Episode 3, “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong,” as Aimee-Leigh’s wayward brother, Baby Billy. With slicked back white hair and big ol’ glasses, Goggins lays on the Southern charm as a crafty con man, a heartbroken brother, or both. Like Judy, you can’t get an easy read on him, and that works to the show’s advantage.
McBride builds the series around his characters more than satire. While the hourlong premiere episode spends plenty of time chronicling the Gemstones’ limitless expenditures — their home compound is so large they have to use golf carts to drive to each other’s mansions, unless they decide to make a pit stop at their private theme park or zoo along the way — each episode ends with a twist meant to deepen your connection to the family more than it skewers their church’s hypocritical indulgences. That can be tiring when the episodes drag on too long (the premiere’s pacing is fine, but the 34-40 minute runtimes of Episode 3 – 6 could stand to be cut down), and the lack of searing commentary is a bit of a letdown looking back over the first six episodes, but there’s still potential. Putting characters first is rarely a bad idea with ongoing TV series, and McBride ensures viewers will want to keep coming back just to see more of what this cast can do.
“The Righteous Gemstones” premieres Sunday, Aug. 18 at 10 p.m. on HBO.