Television

Why The Righteous Gemstones Keeps Showing Off the Family Jewels

The new HBO series uses flaccid penises for a higher purpose, but Danny McBride’s satire has gone soft.

Adam Devine, Danny McBride, and John Goodman on a background of gemstones.
Adam Devine, Danny McBride, and John Goodman in The Righteous Gemstones.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fred Norris/HBO and Ola_Tarakanova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dicks abound in HBO’s new megachurch satire The Righteous Gemstones. Several of those dicks are metaphorical: The three siblings (series creator Danny McBride, Adam Devine, and Edi Patterson) who make up the heirs to the flashy, globe-spanning, Bible-thumping Gemstone empire are bumbling at their best and selfish to the core. But many more of those dicks are literal: The series is chockablock with cock, with at least one flaccid member (usually human but in one case equine) making an appearance in each of the first six episodes that were made available to critics. In interviews, the cast and crew have boasted about the surfeit of schlongs as part of the show’s balls-to-the-wall appeal—and even as an example of its progressive bona fides. “There is an episode that has about six dicks in it,” Patterson told a Variety reporter last month. “This show is not afraid of anything.” Added Devine: “I’m happy it’s making [male nudity] less taboo, because women have been naked in movies for decades.”

If you’ve seen an R-rated dudebro comedy in the past decade, you know that a flash of peen is now less an act of subversion than an obligatory trope of the genre, its ability to shock more dependent on timing than the nudity itself. Blame—or credit—Judd Apatow. In this, as in so many things, 2007’s Walk Hard was ahead of its time. That movie, which Apatow co-wrote and co-produced, featured full-frontal nudity both male and female. But it was Jason Segel’s self-exhibition in 2008’s hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another Apatow production, that took the lion’s share of the glory. “The two latest movies to come off the Judd Apatow assembly line have finally recognized a comic truth long known to women everywhere,” Slate movie critic Dana Stevens wrote in her review. “The unerect human penis is inherently funny.” But Apatow claimed that it was about more than laughs. “America fears the penis, and that’s something I’m going to help them get over,” he told Hollywood.com. “I’m going to get a penis in every movie I do from now on.” Lesser filmmakers have been far less socially conscious about surprise sausages, but it’s undeniable that, in the years since, male nudity has become a mainstay on both the big and small screens, with Apatow’s own penis making an apparent cameo in 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

All of which means it’s hard to be convinced that McBride’s menagerie of manhoods is breaking any ground, but that’s not to say it doesn’t serve a higher purpose. The series seems to weaponize its bouquet of willies as part of its assault on toxic masculinity and patriarchal power. After all, they’re never exactly impressive. Their exposures also tend to reveal the most pathetic or venal aspects of the male characters around them. The first wiener we see is wee and, caught on video, is projected and paused by firstborn Gemstone son Jesse (McBride), who can’t be bothered to care about the embarrassment of its owner, a professional subordinate. An up-the-shorts peek at another man’s undercarriage at the gym by Kelvin (Devine), the probably closeted and definitely virginal youngest Gemstone sibling, is meant to underscore how sexually pent-up the youth pastor is, that he could be attracted to such a mound of featureless pink. A shot of satanic wang at a hedonistic nightclub suggests the free and easy self-expression of a devil-worshipping dancer, but he’s also coded as a freak. It’s relevant that pretty much all these knobs belong to side characters—McBride mocks alphas, but he tends to eviscerate betas (who, to be fair, generally participate in the upholding of boys clubs even at the expense of their own dignity). And in a show whose most novel (if underdeveloped) gimmick is its portrayal of faith institutions as yet another battleground for gangster capitalism, complete with turf wars and snarled threats, the majority of the glimpses of fizzled pizzle emphasize their owners’ sniveling status in the show’s hypermasculine ecosphere.

But the show’s phallocentrism also accentuates McBride’s woman problem. The comedian broke out with Eastbound & Down, the HBO cult comedy he co-created and starred in as Kenny Powers, a forcibly retired MLB pitcher constantly planning his comeback. Debuting in 2009, the four-season show felt revelatory at the time—a takedown of self-sabotaging machismo well before the phrase “toxic masculinity” went mainstream. Despite a winsome performance by Katy Mixon as Kenny’s love interest (Mixon would later go on to star in her own show, American Housewife), Eastbound & Down never featured a compelling female character. That seemed in line with Kenny’s peripatetic lifestyle: He wasn’t meant to be able to sustain a relationship. But while the culture changed around McBride, his comedy didn’t. Vice Principals, a two-hander with McBride and Walton Goggins as feuding school administrators that premiered on HBO in 2016, made critics wonder whether McBride and his writers were aware how gross the show’s premise—of two incompetent white men destroying the livelihood of a thoroughly decent black woman to overtake her position as principal—actually was.

Constructed rather similarly to its lead-in Succession, with a set of siblings vying for the affections of a biz-whiz patriarch (John Goodman), The Righteous Gemstones does include a prominent female character in middle child and sole daughter Judy (Patterson), who remains overlooked and underappreciated by her father. Engaged to a milquetoast (Tony Cavalero) who is even more sexually repressed than she is, Judy is pressured to stay on the Gemstone family compound, which allows her father to keep track of her sexual activities (forbidden before marriage). But this plight isn’t as interesting as it could be, nor is her emotional exploitation by her uncle (Goggins), who emerges as her father’s rival for her loyalties. Patterson gets into the groove of McBride’s particular peacocking rhythm just fine, but Judy isn’t distinct enough from her brothers. Worse yet, she occupies the same role that so many of McBride’s other female creations have before her: that of a screeching scold. Her grievances are legitimate, but lacking her father’s solemnity, her older brother’s bombast, and her younger brother’s mystery, Judy feels more like a rough copy of the equally stifled Kelvin than a fully developed character in her own right.

All of which might be forgivable if the series dug deeper into its other ostensible targets: televangelism, the prosperity gospel, and broader aspects of evangelical culture. But at least in its first six episodes, the show barely scratches the surface before reverting to a more conventional crime-dramedy mode. And so the familiarity of McBride’s M.O. disheartens. Skewering toxic masculinity, no matter how well, feels like a half-measure—a reality that many other series have well understood. The Sopranos, about how the demands of mafia machismo were literally killing Tony, also gave us the indelible Carmela, and Mad Men, about the twilight of the WASP lords of yore, gave us Betty, Joan, and of course Peggy. McBride can perhaps see men better than most, but he can’t seem to see women at all.