The most hilarious and unexpectedly moving death scene you will see on television this year opens the season finale of The Righteous Gemstones, which airs Sunday night on HBO. The episode begins with a flashback to the death of beloved wife and mother Aimee-Leigh Gemstone, an unbearably sad moment for those present (her husband and three adult children) that rapidly descends into destructive chaos. The best slapstick has always been rooted in pain and a sense of cosmic injustice, and the scene, in all its uproarious brutality, finds the show’s characters processing death in a way that will feel familiar to anyone who’s lost a loved one: by flipping out and breaking shit.
The Righteous Gemstones might be the funniest show currently on television, and it’s certainly the funniest show I’ve ever seen about grief. The early episodes are a combination of a sendup of megachurch Christianity and a bumbling caper comedy; the fact that grief is the show’s central concern is only slowly revealed. The conceit of its opening stages will be recognizable to anyone familiar with King Lear, or the show’s Sunday-night companion Succession: the trials of an aging patriarch whose idiot kids seem destined to destroy his legacy. On Gemstones, said patriarch is the enormously successful televangelist Eli Gemstone, played by John Goodman, and said offspring are Jesse, Kelvin, and Judy Gemstone, played by Danny McBride, Adam Devine, and the phenomenal Edi Patterson.
The Gemstones are a family unmoored, and the cause of that unmooring is the death of Aimee-Leigh. The first two episodes are consistently hilarious, but the show’s grander designs don’t start to come into focus until Episode 3, with the introduction of Aimee-Leigh’s younger brother, “Baby” Billy Freeman (national treasure Walton Goggins). While in her adult life Aimee-Leigh was most famous as Eli Gemstone’s loving wife and TV co-star, she’d previously enjoyed a childhood career as half of the gospel duo Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy. It’s with the emergence of the grown-up “Uncle Baby Billy” onto the show’s landscape that we start to realize just how much Aimee-Leigh’s absence hangs over the entire world of the show, and that we begin to see almost every bumbling, pathetic, hilarious action taken by the show’s characters as a flailing response to her loss.
The turning point of the The Righteous Gemstones fittingly arrives exactly halfway through the first season. “Interlude,” the show’s fifth installment, is directed by David Gordon Green and set almost entirely in the year 1989, when Jesse and Judy are children and Kelvin is in utero. It’s the most moving half-hour of television I’ve seen this year, and our first (and, so far, only) significant exposure to Aimee-Leigh in the prime of her life, portrayed by real-life country star Jennifer Nettles in a startlingly great performance.
“Interlude” tells the story of a pivotal moment in Gemstone-Freeman family history. Aimee-Leigh learns that she’s pregnant with Kelvin; her children respond in bratty fashion, while Baby Billy throws a fit when he’s told that her pregnancy will preclude her from participating in a lucrative (or so he hopes) reunion tour, and threatens to sell Freeman’s Gap, the expanse of land that they grew up on. Judy has a birthday party; Baby Billy gets Jesse drunk; Aimee-Leigh relents and agrees to the tour, only to discover at episode’s end that Baby Billy has betrayed her by already selling the family land.
The most memorable sequence of “Interlude” is Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy’s performance of “Misbehavin’ ” on the Gemstones’ television show. “Misbehavin’,” co-written by McBride, Patterson, and show composer Joseph Stephens, pays tribute to the long-standing intertwining of American musical and religious traditions while also offering an impassioned reminder that evangelical Christianity, often stereotyped as terminally square, is a space of real vitality and joy for its congregants. Aimee-Leigh is an electrifying performer, and we’re brought face to face with the fact that she’s simply better than the men in the life: a better singer and dancer than Baby Billy, a more charismatic evangelist than Eli, more effortlessly self-assured and cool than any of her children.
There’s an incisive critique of evangelical patriarchy here, of course—a culture where men most often get the glory while talented women labor on the sidelines. But just as provocative is what the show has to say about how the loss of Aimee-Leigh has upended the lives of the people around her. Building this middle episode entirely around Aimee-Leigh allows the show’s other eight episodes to fall powerfully into place around it. This is the person who’d held this family together, who’d sacrificed more on its behalf and had been taken more for granted than anyone. Eli does his best to hold the family together, but it’s a new responsibility for him, and he’s also working through his own grief. The adult children are alternately acting out and clumsily flailing for connection, with their father and with each other.
All of these characters have, until now, materially benefited in an industry that disincentivizes outward displays of fragility, anger, doubt, sadness, despair. There is little room to grieve when your livelihood is rooted in the professional performance of being blessed. As with anyone confronting great loss for the first time, it’s a journey without a map that they don’t fully understand, facing doubts after a life that has only ever offered them the illusion of complete certainty.
The Righteous Gemstones is the third HBO series from the brain trust of McBride (who created the show), Jody Hill, and Green, after the glorious Eastbound & Down and the underappreciated Vice Principals. They are from the worlds that they chronicle: All three grew up in the South and attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, and all three of their HBO shows are set in the exurbs of the Carolinas. In keeping with McBride and Hill’s past work, the writing on Gemstones is a potent mix of the obscene and the absurd—a scene set in an Outback Steakhouse in the season finale featuring Judy and her estranged fiancé, B.J., is indescribably profane and probably the hardest I’ve laughed all season—but the show’s visual language is anything but antic.* Much of this goes back to Green, a Terrence Malick acolyte who might have the most wide-ranging filmography of any director of his generation. McBride, Hill, and Green make works about unbeautiful people and places that are nonetheless awash in moments of profound beauty: Kenny Powers depressively piloting his Jet Ski in the first season of Eastbound & Down, for instance, or Judy Gemstone’s long-awaited moment in the spotlight at the end of Episode 6.
A lesser show than The Righteous Gemstones would have been content to simply skewer American televangelism and the people who profit from it. God knows there’s a lot of material there. (Seriously, He or She definitely does.) But the Gemstones are never objects of spite or straightforward derision; the show has real affection and sympathy for them, and an easy familiarity with their milieu that should never be mistaken for condescension. The first season ends on a quietly redemptive note, with a family member finally (and literally) beginning to dig out from a place that he never expected to find himself. Salvation, the show once again reminds us, can be a dirty business.
Correction, Oct. 13, 2019: This piece originally misstated the location of a scene from the show’s season finale. The scene in question takes place in an Outback Steakhouse, not a Denny’s.