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Photo courtesy of Rough House Pictures / IMDb

Righteous Gemstones Mid-Season Review

Euphoria has been far and away the cultural staple of HBO in 2022, coming in the wake of a hugely successful season of Succession. But perhaps you’re looking for a comedy with humbler values and extra silliness to balance out the depravity of the Euphoria teens. Maybe you enjoyed the backstabbing and teasing or retribution and wit of Succession, but wanted to see that kind of family interplay from a more outlandish and under-explored perspective. Maybe you just want something fun, funny, and sneakily heart-warming after watching an hour of the world’s most insane high school. For that I can direct you to one show that airs right after Euphoria: The Righteous Gemstones.

Season two of Gemstones wraps up on February 27th, but to get the full experience, you’ll need to watch season one. Creator Danny McBride (Vice Principals, Eastbound and Down) stars as Jesse Gemstone, the eldest son of megachurch pastor Eli Gemstone (John Goodman). Jesse is vying for attention and control with his siblings Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and Judy (Edi Patterson). From the first scene of season 1, which shows Jesse and Kelvin bickering over best practices at a mass baptism in China, Gemstones establishes the balance of spectacle, squabbling, and irreverence which is present in practically every scene. 

What follows is a season that explores the nature of wealth and poverty, highlighting the immorality and redemption present on every level of the American religious hierarchy. Season two has been marked by mysterious forces conspiring in some ways to protect the Gemstones and in others to bring them crumbling to the ground. Yet, season 1’s brilliance is in its clarity. Its mysteries are solved for viewers partway through, allowing the ensemble of crazy characters to step to the forefront. It would be unfair to spoil any of the twists and turns of either season, so instead let’s examine the wide range of characters across both that make the show such a gem (no pun intended).

Alongside the core Gemstones are Jesse’s wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) and Judy’s partner BJ (Tim Baltz). These two are the perfect foils for each other: the cunning, social climbing wife and the inept, boyish boyfriend. Amber is ruthless and charming, making her all the more threatening to Jesse if and when he misbehaves. BJ, on the other hand, still has to hide from Eli, since unwed cohabitation is banned in the Gemstone compound (much like it is in BC dorms). Just as Amber draws the viewers’ eyes with her careful moves that only a true apex predator can pull off, BJ also demands attention with his bumbling, yet lovable antics.

Besides the significant others, there are family and friends of the Gemstones that shine just as bright. Jesse’s son Gideon (Skyler Gisondo) is a delight as he confronts exile from the Gemstone compound and his own redemption, as well as his family’s. Kelvin’s confidant and personal salvation story Keefe (Tony Cavalero) is another incredible role whose strongest moments sometimes come from what goes unsaid. Both characters grapple with a challenged faith and a complicated past. Yet, while Gideon approaches his path with poise and intrigue, Keefe brings simplicity and latent sexuality to his journey. Both standout among an already stacked cast.

That cast includes brother-sister tandem Aimee-Leigh Freeman/Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles) and Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins). Aimee-Leigh is the former Gemstone matriarch who has passed away by the beginning of the series. Yet through flashbacks and backstory, she is portrayed as the moral center of the family. Without her, even Eli seems lost and incapable of reining in his rebellious flock. Nettles shines as Aimee-Leigh, making her character’s presence felt throughout the series, despite only two episodes over the entire two seasons, along with occasional flashbacks. Baby Billy is everything his sister isn’t: vain, down on his luck, crass, and just plain smarmy. Goggins stands out as the former child star who resents his sister’s success and her family’s good fortune. Yet, despite his immorality and seeming hopelessness, Goggins, like Baby Billy, is so magnetic that you just can’t help but root for him, warts and all. The two sides of this coin are remarkable. The tension and love between Nettles and Goggins in their scenes together is incredibly real. It’s safe to say that Baby Billy and Aimee-Leigh make up the heart and soul of Gemstones, for better and for worse.

Yet the show is still carried by its principals: Dr. Eli Gemstone, Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin, who all benefit from stellar performances by their actors. McBride shines as Jesse, playing a variation on the dumb yet entitled persona he made his name on in shows like Eastbound and Down. Patterson stuns as Judy, the often overlooked middle daughter of the Gemstone clan. Her awkwardly compelling quest for respect and equal footing among her family gives her some of the best lines in the show. With Waltz’s BJ, she truly sparkles as a comedic force that brings the striving and unsophisticated material the show craves. DeVine matches that energy as Kelvin, the baby brother who positions himself as the most connected to the next generation of Christians. His squabbling and immaturity bring out the best from his siblings, while his interplay with Cavalero’s Keefe makes for some of the funniest tension on the show. Goodman in particular stands out as Eli, the patriarch trying to hold himself and his family together after his wife’s death. While potentially one-dimensional in season 1, Goodman’s character gets pitch-perfect backstory and development in season 2, showing the hard work that leads to Eli’s weariness when the Gemstone name is threatened in later episodes. Together, the four principles create a genuine family experience, conveying a lifetime of memories and petty grievances to viewers in just a few minutes.

This is where Gemstones truly shines: its heart. Despite the insanity and hilarity that make up the majority of its episodes, McBride and director Jody Hill create a real family unit and a web of characters that feels incredibly genuine. Portraying the same critiques of capitalism and wealth as Succession, Gemstones brings the twinges of emotion and growth which more cynical shows might forsake. While McBride’s own upbringing in Southern Protestantism informs his sharp, yet silly critiques, it also gives the sincere appreciation for the social and familial ties that come with even the craziest and most corrupt megachurch clans. Season 1 establishes these relationships, while season 2 builds on them and sprinkles in astounding performances by Eric Andre, Valyn Hall, and Jason Schwartzman, among others. At the end of the day, The Righteous Gemstones delivers hilarity and sincerity that few shows can, all while creating a world for its characters almost unmatched in T.V. today. So start watching Gemstones now in time for the season finale, or you’ll be misbehavin’.

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A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.

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