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Sacred games

  • The Righteous Gemstones is a comedy born out of amorality, but amorality on many different and often unexpected scales
  • Created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill, the series features the great John Goodman -- who plays megachurch patriarch Eli Gemstone

John Goodman in ‘The Righteous Gemstones’.
John Goodman in ‘The Righteous Gemstones’.

The path of the righteous con man is beset by comedians. Televangelists have always been a soft target. Charlatans who exploit the church are rightfully easy to mock—too easy, in fact. Therefore, it is thrilling to find The Righteous Gemstones, a rough-and-tumble farce that gets its laughs from crazed characters and intricate plot machinations rather than obvious satire and thumbing its nose at the church. In one episode, the great John Goodman—playing megachurch patriarch Eli Gemstone—furiously grabs a potato off a passing lunch plate and hurls it, with sniper-like precision, through a stained-glass window miles above. Potshots they may deserve, but this particular church can take aim.

Created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill, The Righteous Gemstones is a comedy born out of amorality, but amorality on many different and often unexpected scales. An HBO show (streaming in India on Hotstar Premium), it chronicles the powerful and petty Gemstone family as they try to increase their influence. The family preaches the gospel of prosperity—they have three personal aeroplanes, named The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit—and their operations seem well-oiled until you look closer and see a ship of fools.

“Good afternoon, Jesus." When praying privately, Jesse Gemstone, played by McBride, addresses the lord as if angling for a raise. He is a repugnant oaf, a misogynistic hothead without a shred of compassion for friends or family, yet there’s sincerity buried in his prayers. He is being blackmailed, you see. Someone in a devil mask is threatening to expose an incriminating video, and Jesse—whose funds are strictly monitored by his all-controlling father—can come up with no better recourse than to buy a keychain-knife called a kubotan.

He has a younger brother, Kelvin (played by an intensely spiky-haired Adam DeVine), and a restless sister, Judy (Edi Patterson), and while the three never see eye-to-eye, they know better than to go to their father with their problems. Eli Gemstone is a larger-than-life preacher who runs roughshod over local pastors but sighs wearily by himself when home, pining for his dearly departed wife. Watching John Goodman sink his teeth into a role so imperious, set against this elaborately, goofily twisty plot, makes The Righteous Gemstones seem a bit like watching an early Coen Brothers movie in slow motion—and there can be no higher compliment (well, a Coen Brothers film scripted in crayon, at the very least).

The cast is stacked. Dermot Mulroney plays a tough priest named Reverend Seasons, and the one and only Walton Goggins dons a Technicolor bathrobe to play a preacher called Baby Billy Freeman. Goggins is supernaturally slimy as he slathers on the Southern sauce like only he can, stealing the show as soon as he shows up. Goggins and McBride had demonstrated cracking comic chemistry in Vice Principals—another highly enjoyable McBride-Hill creation (also streaming on Hotstar Premium)—but this time Goggins, playing a character a couple of decades older, looks to have a seat at the head of the table, getting to play off none other than Goodman’s Eli.

The idea of a corrupt family exploiting God’s name is a popular one, but instead of merely pointing fingers at these gasbags, The Righteous Gemstones questions the very idea of being righteous. With every single character far from redemption, and with audiences inevitably picking champions to root for based on charisma and witty lines, this is the kind of comedy that made me wonder if anyone could ever be worthy of throwing the first stone—after all, we clearly live in a world where we are all trying hard to duck.

This is also the kind of comedy where a man who is accessory to a crime gets commemorative coins made and distributes them to his co-conspirators. “We did it," the coins proudly (and very prematurely) say, along with a convenient list of all their names. Meanwhile, churches are being opened in shopping malls. One has replaced a Sears department store, and part of the sales pitch is that where you used to buy slacks and power tools, “now, you can buy Jesus".

You don’t have to believe (or disbelieve) in the almighty to buy into The Righteous Gemstones, a family with a last name so fantastical they couldn’t help but be hucksters or sorcerers, selling something unreal. The important thing is that it is positively phenomenal to watch Goodman scare the pants off all those around him and later break into that booming laugh. Maybe this show actually exists to remind us that Goodman is God. That, I buy. His children are perpetually in trouble, he can’t decide whether he’s angrier or sadder, and while the situation may be increasingly slippery, his offspring are sharper than he, or they, expect. Sly is the family Gemstone.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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