Sky Comedy’s latest import certainly lands with a splash. Danny McBride’s HBO comedy, centred on the astonishing world of US megachurches and the extremely wealthy people who run them, opens with a 24-hour baptism marathon in China, as 5,000 converts line up to be dunked. Overseen by John Goodman’s towering patriarch Eli, the Gemstone brothers, Jesse (played by McBride) and Kelvin (the elastic-faced Adam DeVine), are unable to stop bickering even in this most spiritual of moments. They splash each other. Then the wave machine comes on, and with it, disco lights and a thumping EDM soundtrack. In the name of this father and these sons, the holy spirit is lacking.
As a concept, God, guns and theme parks should provide rich material. Across the US south, the Gemstones have built arena-sized places of worship and reaped the rewards, living in grotesque excess as the tithes keep rolling in. One scene in particular shows that this is a lucrative business; after Eli has preached the importance of donations, to “save 5,000 Chinese souls”, we cut to the backstage area, which looks like an outtake from The Sopranos, as the many money-counting machines get to work on the piles of cash.
Like any TV family, the Gemstones are deeply dysfunctional. Eli is mourning his wife, Aimee-Lee, with whom he built his empire in the 80s, and the throwback footage of the pair’s televangelist days is one of the highlights of the first episode. Without her, the family is falling apart. The three children exist on a sliding scale between intellectually challenged and amoral. Judy, a fun turn by Vice Principals’ Edi Patterson, is sidelined by the men, no matter how desperate she is to thrive. “Flying around on private planes being leaders, that’s men’s business,” Jesse tells her. Kelvin lives with a mullet-toting former Satanist called Keefe with whom he shares extended homoerotic moments, and Kelvin’s devotion to a deep-V T-shirt is almost as strong as his devotion to the big man upstairs. Jesse has a solid family of his own – give or take a wayward son – yet is the worst of the bunch, lacking in decency, convinced of his own superiority without any apparent justification, a blustering and unapologetic and gruesomely entitled man. In an attempt to extort $1m from the Gemstone empire, he is sent a video that shows him snorting cocaine while naked women dance around him. But even as the mysterious blackmailer explains Jesse’s hypocrisy to him, he still insists he is a man of the Lord.
If this doesn’t sound all that funny, then the problem is that at this stage, it isn’t. Despite the bits of slapstick – a baptismal upset here, a penis on a scurrilous video there, Keefe’s enormous 666 tattoo – it is short on laughs. It seems keen not to take potshots at the easy targets, despite the rich array of absurdity that this level of evangelical Christianity offers, and it is just respectful enough to blunt the comedy somewhat.
When it came out in the US last summer, a number of reviews noted its similarity to Succession – a cold, ruthless and unloving patriarch trying to protect his empire, children who cannot possibly live up to their father’s name, the corruption of extreme wealth and greed. There’s even a character like that show’s Tom, in the form of Judy’s hapless outsider fiance, BJ. (The standout moment is a family meal that descends into chaos, as BJ laments the “regressive” family, “always keeping women in the shadows”, to which Jesse’s wife, Amber, replies: “Do you know what I think?”, before pausing for permission – “I’m sorry, can I talk?”) Comparing anything to Succession, a series at the very top of its game, is always going to be unfavourable for the show that is not Succession, but it does demonstrate just how skilled that show is at demanding and nurturing our investment in awful people. At the moment, The Righteous Gemstones simply lacks the depth.
However, after almost an entire episode of world-building, it does threaten to go somewhere far more interesting. Goodman is terrifying as Eli, who is moving the family in on new territory. While smiling at the “brother pastors” whose churches existed long before his, he calmly explains his plans to swallow them up. In this world, the meek shall not inherit the Earth. Dermot Mulroney is Johnny Seasons, one of those pastors, a seemingly humble man who looks as if he will become the Gemstones’ nemesis. Yet it’s the blackmail plot that eventually explodes into life, kick-starting the action and hinting at a darker season to come.
McBride has talked about how people raved about his earlier show Eastbound & Down, but not enough of them actually watched it, despite the cult love it continues to inspire. For the bulk of this opener, The Righteous Gemstones hovers cautiously, without ever quite finding the strength of its voice. But it clearly has the potential to be much more. I’m praying for these Gemstones to shine.