Praise the Lord and pass the collection plate.
It’s a cornerstone of many a religion — and in the case of some groups, it often feels as if it’s more like “Pass the collection plate, praise the Lord — and let’s pass that collection plate one more time.”
That’s certainly the mindset of the charismatic evangelical pastor Dr. Eli Gemstone and his two adult sons, Jesse and Kelvin, as they continue to expand their empire of churches and youth ministries and theme parks (and of course sales of merch).
They live in enormous homes on an expansive family compound. (The property is so huge, they take golf carts to reach each other’s homes.) They travel the world in private planes named The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. They rake in the cash via televised pleas for donations and splashy, non-denominational, revival-tent type shows, punctuated by “snappy” banter and hokey musical numbers.
Oh right — and once in a while they even mention God.
Premiering Sunday on HBO, “The Righteous Gemstones” would seem to be the evangelical satire for our times, and indeed there are some fantastically funny comedic set-pieces in which the satirical dart hits the bullseye, e.g., a mass baptism of 5,000 Chinese converts in a wave pool that goes spectacularly wrong.
But the latest comedic endeavor from writer-producer-actor Danny McBride (“Eastbound and Down,” “Vice-Principals”) spends much more time focusing on the fractured family dynamic of the Gemstone family than on the religious satire.
For every scene we get detailing how the organization collects and processes mountains of cash (while tossing out the unread prayer-request letters) or demonstrating the breathtaking hypocrisy of certain family members who practice the exact opposite of what they preach, we get a half-dozen sequences chronicling the misadventures of this deeply dysfunctional extended family.
The great John Goodman plays family patriarch Eli Gemstone, who ruthlessly eliminates the small-church competition when the family opens an enormous place of worship in a shopping mall, in the space formerly occupied by Sears.
Eli is a charlatan, but he possesses some humanity, as evidenced by the reverent way in which he talks about his late wife, Aimee-Leigh (Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, appearing regularly in flashback sequences).
Not sure we can say the same for Eli’s oldest son Jesse, played by McBride in his trademark fashion — loud, intimidating, self-centered, buffoonish, hypocritical …
And very funny.
Jesse is constantly at odds with younger brother Kelvin (Adam Devine), who is becoming a rising star in the family due to work with the profitable Youth Ministries division. BOTH brothers are forever fighting with their sister Judy (Edi Patterson), who has been relegated to a backstage role in the organization for the simple and stupid reason she is a woman.
When the Gemstones do battle with each other or with rivals ranging from small-town pastors to small-time extortionists, it’s rarely in a low key. Even the snappiest one-liners are delivered at high volume, and the physical comedy often involves the smashing of things and sometimes even the smashing of people.
It’s the Danny McBride way. Go big or go even bigger.
Episode Three marks the debut of the scene-swiping Walton Goggins as Aimee-Leigh’s brother, “Billy Baby,” who has a shock of combed-back white hair, tinted glasses from the Elvis School of Fashion and a con man’s smile. Playing the part of the grieving brother who knows better than anyone, even Eli, what the beloved Aimee-Leigh would have wanted for the family, Goggins is so effective that even though we KNOW this guy is pure slick, well, maybe he really did worship his sister and maybe he really does want what’s best for the family.
The series premiere is an hour long and that’s just fine because we’re just meeting his family and there’s a lot of soak in. But subsequent episodes running as long as 40 minutes seem padded. Feels like this should be a half-hour show.
Remarkably, even as we’re shaking our heads at the hypocrisy of these people, by the fourth or fifth episode we have come to like these characters and we start to care about what happens to them.
Well. Some of them. At least one guy deserves what’s coming to him.