“I think Danny McBride is the Woody Allen for blue-collar America,” his Vice Principals co-star Walton Goggins – who arrives with oily perfection in the supporting cast of The Righteous Gemstones in episode three – declared in 2016. That could be read as insulting now, but three years ago he was speaking to McBride’s feel for America’s vast hinterlands and the characters who can run amok there under an everyday veneer.
The Gemstones are the people who’ve profited off the faith of ordinary Americans; they believe in God, but their ministry also requires three private jets (“The Father”, “The Son” and “The Holy Spirit”). Their ministry is a constantly expanding business, stoked by parishioners that number in the thousands for each service, and they force out smaller rivals when they enter a market. They’re the prosperity gospel on steroids.
The show hardly gets at the intersection of religion and politics in the US, as the focus is always turned inwards to the dysfunctional family. The driving force in the early episodes is a blackmail plot based around a compromising video of Jesse involving cocaine and prostitutes – fun was obviously had at the “Prayer Power convention in Atlanta” – which is both an opportunity for his siblings to mock him and eventually, when the family’s lucrative reputation is threatened, offer misguided assistance.
Crude bickering is McBride’s default setting, and Jesse and Kelvin carry on like peeved rivals – it wouldn’t be a McBride performance without his character miming a masturbatory gesture to a rival. But Jesse is more of a success, and a family man, than McBride has previously played. The way that Jesse’s sons have turned against him, with the oldest initially in exile, is tragicomic, and it shines a light back on Eli, who is responsible in part for how his own children turned out.
The idea of a rich patriarch trying to secure his realm while dealing with his three flawed children is obviously popular at HBO: it applies equally to hit Succession. The Righteous Gemstones is coming from a vastly different place, but it also understands the value of grotesque escalation and a carnivorous plot that heaps on family conflict. McBride, working again in close collaboration with co-writer/director Jody Hill and filmmaker David Gordon Green, hasn’t so much tempered his excess as found a purpose for it.
The series has just had a second season confirmed, and when you get past the lippy back and forth and unholy greed there are some fascinating strands to be traced, from the church’s money counting room looking like a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s organised crime saga Casino to the unresolved sexual tension between Kelvin and his friend Keefe (Anthony Cavalero), a reformed Satanist. The Righteous Gemstones may be about the corruption of organised religion, but the series could yet be worth believing in. That’s third time lucky for Danny McBride.