Television

HBO’s Best Comedy Isn’t Succession

If you watch one Sunday night show about a patriarch pitting his kids against one another, make it The Righteous Gemstones.

An illustration of several people imitating Christian imagery.
HBO

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An aging patriarch, the self-made and ruthlessly dictatorial founder of a lucrative media empire, is wrestling with his life’s legacy. His adult children—exasperating bundles of entitlement and inept ambition, alternately cowed by and covetous of their father’s power—constantly fight over who will ascend to power when daddy decides to step down, a retirement date that remains perpetually unspecified. All the while, the children, along with their assorted spouses and partners, scheme to undermine both their father and one another so that they might take the dynastic reins sooner rather than later. This is all despite lacking any clear vision as to what they’ll do once they have them. Sunday nights on HBO!

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I’m obviously talking about the televangelism satire The Righteous Gemstones, which is back for its second season with a two-part premiere this Sunday after a two-year, COVID-induced hiatus. But I could also be, of course, talking about Succession, HBO’s Emmy magnet that might well be the most talked-about and obsessed-over show on television—by those of us who write about television, at least. Succession is a wonderful show, full of magnificent performances and whip-smart writing. It also was the center of a recent minor controversy about whether or not it’s a (very dark) comedy, spawned by Michael Schulman’s fantastic profile of star Jeremy Strong. Strong doesn’t believe it is; co-star Kieran Culkin disagreed; at the time of this writing, the matter remains unresolved.

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The Righteous Gemstones is in no danger of such ambiguity: It is a comedy with every fiber of its being, and the funniest one currently on air. The series’s long-awaited return feels like a New Year’s gift for 2022. In a moment rife with overpraise for TV comedies that don’t much bother with actual comedy, Gemstones offers a welcome reminder that being funny is an art in itself—a difficult, thrilling, and totally necessary one.

Gemstones’ sophomore season returns almost all of the show’s major players from Season 1. The cast is anchored by the titular Gemstone family, with John Goodman as patriarch Eli Gemstone, Danny McBride as first-born son Jesse (McBride also created the show), Edi Patterson as mercurial middle daughter Judy, and Adam DeVine as Eli’s youngest son, the fashion-forward, fitness-obsessed Kelvin. We’re also treated to the return of Jennifer Nettles, in extensive flashback sequences, as the dearly departed Aimee-Leigh Gemstone, the family’s powerhouse matriarch whose lingering absence was the driving engine behind the show’s first season.

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Season 2 is more ambitious in its plotting than the first, with storylines that feature the unexpected emergence of unsavory figures from Eli’s past, a seat-of-the-pants plan to open a Christian-themed coastal resort, a bodybuilding cult in revolt, and a slew of other developments I’ll refrain from spoiling here. Early on, this can make episodes feel a bit overstuffed, when the viewer sometimes gets the sense that a logjam of ideas have piled up in the considerable amount of time off.

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Luckily, Gemstones’ extraordinary collection of comedic talent makes it a joy to watch even when its narrative flow occasionally lurches. As a venue for world-class character actors, Gemstones continues to boast an embarrassment of riches. Walton Goggins returns in even sharper form as the clan’s self-pitying, ne’er-do-well uncle, Baby Billy Freeman; Tim Baltz gives an extravagantly weird and relentlessly hilarious performance as Judy’s earnest and supernaturally awkward partner, BJ; and Tony Cavalero is back as Keefe, the sensitive and soft-spoken ex-satanist consensually enmeshed in a state of psychosexual servility to Kelvin. The new season adds Eric Roberts, who delivers some of the funniest work of his career as a spectacularly slimy pro wrestling promoter, Eric André as the Texas-based megachurch pastor Lyle Lissons, and Jason Schwartzman as investigative journalist Thaniel Block.

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The Righteous Gemstones is the third HBO series from the creative brain trust of McBride and longtime collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, who between them direct the lion’s share of episodes in Season 2. Gemstones still isn’t quite at the level of the exquisite Eastbound and Down, the trio’s first outing that’s one of the great comedic masterpieces of the 21st century. But Gemstones is also more broadly accessible than Eastbound, to say nothing of that show’s successor, the pitch-dark and sporadically brilliant Vice Principals, which never found much of an audience.

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What makes a show as profane and raunchy as Gemstones so irresistible—the quality that’s made it a cult hit, and deserves to make it a non-cult one—is the remarkable warmth at its core. It’s a show that’s free of cynicism while never feeling cloying or treacly. It’s not a show that’s out to teach lessons or impart wisdom, because it respects its audience as adults, people mature enough to know that sitcoms aren’t a finishing school, let alone a church. What the show does have is an unmistakable sense of joy in every facet of its execution: Everyone involved seems to be having the time of their lives, and it’s this quality that’s most powerfully imparted to viewers.

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Two performances in Season 2 stand out in elevating the show to its most sublime highs. Edi Patterson was the breakout star of the show’s first season and might be one of the top three funniest performers on planet Earth right now. Her performance as Judy is a miracle of twitching physicality, sputtering profanity, and an otherworldly command of touch and timing. Among Eli’s children, Judy is the most chronically marginalized, in part because of her gender and her marriage to BJ, a newcomer to Christianity. This season finds the character coming into her own more and ever so slowly approaching something like real adulthood, a development Patterson’s performance tracks with an all-consuming and uproarious intensity.

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The second is John Goodman’s as Eli Gemstone. Goodman has long been one of our finest actors, a performer of extraordinary dimension and depth. This season adds new layers and fullness to his character, particularly in terms of fleshing out his own personal history. If the first season depicted Eli largely as a man perpetually besieged by his squabbling children while also navigating the loss of his beloved wife, Season 2 turns him into a weathered, complex human being forced to navigate his own life’s missteps and regrets. It’s a subtle and nuanced performance that serves as the show’s spiritual anchor, in more ways than one.

One of The Righteous Gemstones’ great achievements is satirizing one of the easiest targets in modern American life—the gaudy, scandal-rich world of big-money televangelism—while never veering into condescension or cruelty. The world that the show depicts isn’t one we’re meant to admire or even wish to visit, but McBride and his collaborators have created a work of unexpected empathy that lingers after the laughs have subsided. For a show that’s necessarily agnostic in its theological commitments, its fundamental optimism and humanism remain inseparable from each other. As Sunday rituals go, we could all do a lot worse.

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