Story by Will Chappell
Photo credits to HBO Max
The second season of The Righteous Gemstones concluded last Sunday on HBO after a second season that saw the show start to come together and with a third season already ordered. After an uneven first season, the show decided to turn the spotlight on John Goodman this year— and the results did not disappoint. Although there are still wrinkles to be ironed out, the show seems to be heading towards finding the sweet spot for all the members of the main cast to elevate a hilariously absurdist premise.
The Righteous Gemstones follows the misadventures of the titular Gemstone family, the heads of a megachurch in South Carolina. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) is the aging patriarch to three exceedingly noxious children, Jesse (Danny McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson) and Kelvin (Adam Devine). In the first season, the show focused on a compromising videotape of Jesse and his struggles against a group trying to blackmail him, which ended up being facilitated by his son, Gideon (Skyler Gisondo). The season had its highs, but Gisondo struggled to captivate as the prodigal son, while Goodman, Devine and Patterson were resigned to secondary roles.
This season, the show turned to the relationship between Eli and Jesse, with much more rewarding results. Eli’s past comes back to haunt him when an old friend from his past as an amateur wrestler in Memphis comes to town. Paired with an investigative reporter snooping around megachurches, a large investment opportunity being championed by Jesse and the ongoing familial feuds, the results were much more entertaining.
Highlighting John Goodman seemed a natural choice after a first season which saw him chronically underutilized. Goodman is as funny as ever as the powerful, frustrated and lonely Eli Gemstone trying to find his way after his wife’s passing while leading an enormous flock and trying to corral his unruly children. Fleshing out his backstory with a series of flashbacks to Memphis in the 1960s was a brilliant choice to show the backstory of the uber-successful pastor. Goodman’s performance was also elevated this season by Eric Roberts, delivering an alternatingly menacing, touching and hilarious performance as Junior, the son of Goodman’s old wrestling promoter.
Eli was not the only gemstone that the show better utilized this season as Judy became a more developed character, largely through her interplay with her husband. Judy is a spoiled, churlish, oversexualized woman who will throw tantrums or behave completely inappropriately at the drop of a hat. In the first season, her relationship with her husband, BJ (Tim Baltz), was borderline abusive, often leaving the viewer feeling little but disgust for Judy. This season, BJ became more in lockstep with Judy, with devastatingly funny results. Perhaps the funniest moment of the season was when Baltz as BJ arrived at his post-communion reception in a onesie styled as a pink tuxedo. After throwing a tantrum at his family’s lukewarm response, BJ throws a piece of cake which hits Eli right in the face. Baltz’s commitment and ability to play the incredibly odd BJ, who accepts his eccentric wife unconditionally while trying to become fully accepted into her family, is one of the strongest suits of the show.
In addition to finding more varied ways to use its talented cast, The Righteous Gemstones also continued the strong production values that characterized the first season. Most notable is the soundtrack, packed with original Christian music that is exceptionally well-written and performed. But the show’s crew has proved adroit at capturing every aspect of the spectacle and absurdity of the ultra-wealthy lifestyle and over-the-top religious services of the Gemstones. From the very first scene of the series showing a mass baptism in China thrown into chaos when the wave pool hosting it was turned on to BJ’s made-for-tv baptism and reception, the show never leaves the viewer wanting for spectacle.
There were still uneven moments this season. Devine still feels somewhat out of place as the youngest sibling as his attempts to find a flock to minister continue to flounder. There are moments, like the explosive escape from a jailhouse, that strain the limits of the suspension of disbelief. And there is still something of a lingering question about the message of the show. So far, we have seen the titular family’s fortunes soar despite their repeated bad behavior. Perhaps there is a reckoning coming for the Gemstones, or perhaps the producers are making the cynical point that goodness is not a prerequisite for success, even in religion. Whatever the case, after a solid second season, I look forward to what the show holds in store.