Photo: ‘The Righteous Gemstones’/HBO Max
From the mind of the reliably hilarious Danny McBride, is a new kind of crime family. The half-hour comedy series on HBO, the Righteous Gemstones, follows a powerful televangelist family who have clearly followed in the footsteps of Jim and Tammy Bakker. At the head of this family is Eli (John Goodman), who makes the rules and once hosted their show with his deceased wife. Below him are his immature children; the arrogant Jesse (Danny McBride), the psychotic Judy (Edi Patterson), and the surprisingly genuine Kelvin (Adam DeVine).
While the series could have easily been a parody of right-leaning Christian mentality, McBride takes a different approach, telling a funny yet compelling story of crime, betrayal, and sins. McBride’s portrayal of a televangelist family does not stray too far from the antics of the Sopranos, which shows how the real-life business of megachurches isn’t much different than any crime family.
‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Is More Similar To Your Favorite Mob Films Than You Realize
The one thing that means more to the Gemstones than God is the almighty dollar. This can be seen with their lavish mansions, clothes, and private jets. Jesse’s mansion that he shares with his wife, Amber (Cassidy Freeman), and children looks like something Henry Hill of ‘Goodfellas’ would live in. Tacky decor, more rooms than a family of five needs, and even a hidden closet full of guns. How did the family get this much money? Church donations that are supposed to go to the work of the good Lord himself. In one scene where Jesse’s eldest son, Gideon (Skylar Gisondo), is learning about the donations, we see the camera follow the money from the collection tray to the back room where the money is counted. This scene perfectly mirrors the courtroom scene in ‘Casino’, in both scenes, the audience follows the money these characters make only for it to be revealed just how much they have hidden in the backroom from the public eye.
With all this money, the Gemstones are easily seen as the most powerful pastors in the state of Texas. This leads them to have a conflict with the other much smaller pastors in the area such as Rev John Wesley Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), a pastor of a smaller congregation compared to the Gemstones stadium-sized church. The Gemstones act like the powerful Corleone family in the ‘Godfather’ films, with the rival pastors trapped at their mercy.
This rivalry leads to Jesse unsuccessfully ambushing John’s home after he believes he is being blackmailed by him and John hiring goons to ambush the Gemstones newest church in the abandoned Sears at the mall. During this last ambush, Eli holds the goons up at gunpoint, makes them take their clothes off, and has them run through the mall naked as punishment. While this punishment is lighter in tone, feeling like the antics of ‘the Dukes of Hazzard’, things soon grow more serious and dire for the Gemstones.
A Tale of Betrayal, Crime, and Sins.
The main source of conflict in the series is a case of blackmail, the inciting incident being when Jesse gets a video from an unknown number. The video in question shows Jesse and his “gang” snorting cocaine and hooking up with prostitutes despite them all being respected and vocal members of the church. Jesse leads his “gang” and siblings on a quest to find the blackmailers which results in various illegal activities from Judy hitting two of the perpetrators with her car to Jesse’s “gang” ransacking a car garage that caught it all on their security cameras. During all of this, Jesse acts more and more like a mob boss, leading the group in irresponsible plans and even accusing one of his own as being a “rat”. Jesse begins to talk to his friends and family like Tony Soprano, like a boss rather than an equal. During all of this, Jesse hides everything from Amber, leaving Amber in the dark about her husband’s illegal activities. Amber being left in the dark makes her similar to other crime wives such as Skylar from ‘Breaking Bad’ and Karen from ‘Goodfellas’.
Who is blackmailing Jesse? His own son, Gideon, and his deranged stuntman friend, Scotty (Scott MacArthur). Gideon is blackmailing his own father after feeling constantly talked down to and forgotten by Jesse. It is the sins of the father that leads the son to commit his own sins. Gideon’s plan soon involves a major heist of the Gemstones donations on Easter that Scotty takes over. While this betrayal mirrors that of Judas’ to Jesus, with Jesse even telling this story to the congregation while Gideon debates on going through with the heist, this betrayal is also a common trope in mobster films such as in ‘Once Upon A Time in America’.
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This betrayal affects the father and son relationship between Gideon and Jesse, leading to both a strain in their relationship but for Jesse to now see Gideon as an equal. The father and son dynamic is seen in such mob stories as ‘the Godfather’ series and ‘A Bronx Tale’ where the son is both in conflict with their father’s ideals of them while also wanting to surpass their expectations of them. Gideon wants to separate himself from the Gemstones, making it in Hollywood, but also wants to be a better man than his sinful father.
Baby Billy: The True Star Of The Hour
Baby Billy (Walton Groggins) is arguably the breakout star of the series with his carnie trickery. Baby Billy, the uncle of the family and Eli’s brother-in-law, is known for being a liar and a trickster. Back in the day, he tricked the matriarch of the family, his sister, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), into going on tour with him while pregnant just so he can relive his glory days as a child star. With his much younger wife, Tiffany (Valyn Hall), and smooth-talking ways, Baby Billy acts like the most overt mobster in the family. From his wardrobe not changing since the 1980s to the grand painting he has of himself, he is as if Scarface’s Tony Montana was a Bible-loving preacher. While Baby Billy has the look and attitude of a mobster character, his actions soon live up to this in the last episodes of the first season.
In the first season’s penultimate episode, the opening starts with Baby Billy receiving road head from Tiffany (what better way to describe Baby Billy). He soon coincidently crashes his car into Scotty’s van, which has the millions of dollars that he just stole from the Gemstones in the back. After seeing that the money belongs to the Gemstones, Baby Billy doesn’t return the money to his family but steals it for himself. This is made even easier by the fact that Tiffany has accidentally shot Scotty in the head while playing with his gun like a toy.
While the Gemstones try to find the stolen money without getting the police involved (like other crime families, the Gemstones never get the police involved), Baby Billy is out using their stolen money to buy cars, boats, and Tiffany new teeth. He is ballsy enough to use the stolen money to buy lavish goods immediately, similarly to this classic ‘Goodfellas’ scene, not caring about how suspicious this makes him look. By stealing the money for himself, Baby Billy actively betrays his family without a second thought and immediately buys the same tacky and extravagant goods that the Gemstone family already owns.
The Gemstones And Real Televangelists
The Gemstone family is not too far off from real televangelists who make millions by preaching on live television within stadium-sized churches. The corruption of the Gemstone family only highlights the real-life corruption of televangelists, showing that their corruption isn’t far off from the ones in crime films. There is Joel Osteen, with a net worth of 60 million dollars, who infamously did not open his church in Houston to Hurricane Harvey victims. The 16,000 square foot building that could have housed thousands of citizens remained closed during the hurricane. Pat Robertson, host of the 700 Club, with a net worth of 100 million dollars, is also no stranger to controversies from buying a $520,000 racehorse to countless homophobic and racist comments.
The titular Gemstone family is more clearly based on the likes of Jim and Tammy Bakker, with the original Gemstone televangelist, set even looking exactly like the set of the ‘PTL Club’. Like Jim and Tammy, the Gemstones live extravagant lives thanks to the church donations. The FCC soon filed an investigation against the televangelist couple for misusing the funds they raised on air where they found that over 1.3 million dollars in ministry funds were used for the couple’s personal expenses from the years 1980 to 1983. The Gemstones are not too far off from this, from the family’s only money coming from the church to Judy even stealing money from the collection boxes.
Danny McBride smartly wrote ‘the Righteous Gemstones’ as more than just a wacky satire but as an engaging crime story. The antics of the Gemstone family aren’t far off from other crime families, from the likes of mob films from Scorsese to peak television such as Sopranos and Breaking Bad. These antics not only reveal the flaws of the titular family but also reveal the flaws of the business of megachurches. If we are to see the Gemstone family as crooks then we must see the real-life people they are based on as crooks as well, which are the real televangelists who make millions off their arena-sized churches.
‘The Righteous Gemstones’ is available to stream on HBOMax
Cast: Danny McBride, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, John Goodman, Walter Goggins
Directors: Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Jody Hill
Writers: Danny McBride, John Carcieri, Jeff Fradley, Grant Dekernion, Kevin Barnett, Chris Pappas, Jeff Fradley, and Edit Patterson
The cast and crew of ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ are currently filming season two of the series.
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Brianna Benozich is a writer for The Hollywood Insider and a stand up comedian. With a background in screenwriting, she believes that every good story relies on character, story, and themes. Brianna believes that these components, especially with comedies, can start necessary conversations and even open the minds of the audience. She strives to bring attention to underrepresented and overshadowed films and television series which align with the core values of Hollywood Insider’s mission to provide meaningful and compelling stories.