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It’s tempting to compare HBO’s ‘Righteous Gemstones’ and ‘Succession,’ so let’s do it

Danny McBride’s new HBO series makes a fine companion piece to recent hit ‘Succession,’ serving as the religious grift yin to the latter’s secular yang.

It’s tempting to compare HBO’s ‘Righteous Gemstones’ and ‘Succession,’ so let’s do it
[Photos: Ryan Green/HBO (The Righteous Gemstones); Craig Blankenhorn/HBO (Succession); Peter Kramer/HBO (Succession)]

What could’ve sounded less appealing on paper in summer 2018 than a show like HBO’s Succession?

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As a large swath of Americans simmered in resentment over a newly passed tax cut for billionaires, aided and abetted by untold conglomerates and conservative media, here comes a comedy (?!) about an Americanized version of the Murdoch family. Hardy f*cking har har.

The show’s saving grace, however, is that it isn’t celebrating the all-powerful Roy family, so much as shrinking them down to human size and putting their sociopathy on full display. Seeing this nest of vipers try to sink their fangs in as many necks as possible—especially each other’s—provided the kind of humor that might be mined from current headlines were they not actually affecting us in any way but rather the population of Earth 2. It wasn’t a catharsis, and it didn’t need to be. It was brutalist, pitch-black, highly quotable TV about a family of human monsters who take turns being the least monstrous. ‘Nuff said.

Cut to late-summer 2019, though, and just as Succession’s second season hits the market, HBO is rolling out another series about a dysfunctional family of elite hustlers. But while the Roy family is comprised of masters of the universe, The Righteous Gemstones heed a higher calling in service to the lord above. (They’re a family of evangelicals.) Considering that these two shows air back to back on Sunday nights—Gemstones premieres on Sunday, August 18—the network clearly considers them either complementary or different enough not to invite much comparison. After watching several episodes of each show’s current season, I can confirm that they are markedly different twists on the modern antihero genre.

The Righteous Gemstones is the latest fruit borne from the long-running partnership between HBO and Danny McBride. Unlike their previous shows together, Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals, McBride is the sole creator of Gemstones. (His collaborators on the other series, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, are still on board as producers, though, and direct some of the episodes.) The new series retains the same kind of morally fluid characters and blunt, uncompromising humor that has become McBride’s trademark and stretched it out into a sprawling family saga. Ironically, going it alone has made McBride more generous with spreading the story around far beyond his own character.

McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, the eldest sire in a family of megachurch preachers, presided over by widower Eli Gemstone (John Goodman, packing a lot of gravitas.) Workaholics alum Adam Devine impressively blends into the tone of the show as youngest brother, Kelvin, a hot-shit youth minister. The main cast is rounded out by two Vice Principals players: Walton Goggins as Eli’s slippery brother-in-law, fellow preacher Baby Billy, and Edi Patterson as Eli’s daughter, Judy, who has a serious case of middle-child syndrome. (“Daddy, slap me, too,” she says after Eli slaps her brothers while breaking up a fight. “I’m a Gemstone, too, so slap me in the face.”) The show finds the family at the peak of its Joel Osteen-esque success, residing in neighboring McMansions within one large compound, when McBride’s character is blackmailed over some decidedly un-church-like behavior.

What The Righteous Gemstones most prominently has in common with Succession, beyond the surface similarity of powerful patriarchs in decline who did a number on their kids, is that none of these folks are especially good people. They’re all inveterate liars, and they’re often mean and ugly to one another. Eli Gemstone is introduced attempting to usurp the parishioners of four local pastors, by expanding into their territory with a shiny new church, in a mall of all places. It’s the kind of shrewd, take-no-prisoners maneuver that Succession papa Logan Roy, a seasoned corporate raider, might respect.

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Both shows are also topical, with The Righteous Gemstones arriving at a time when the evangelical community’s NC-17 embrace of Trump has exposed its moral bankruptcy once and for all, and with Succession’s . .  . well, everything about that show is topical.

This is just about where the similarities between the two shows end, though.

Unlike the Gemstones, the Roy family wears its asshole status on its monogrammed sleeves. They luxuriate in it, often one-upping each other for who can be the most outwardly evil. Meanwhile, the Gemstones hide behind their ostensibly religious work while reaping ungodly sums of cash from vulnerable souls. The main conflict around the blackmail storyline is that a member of the family could be exposed as a hypocritical hedonist. Heaven forbid!

While the Roys seem to know that one day they’ll be smelling of sulfur and brimstone, the Gemstones are high on their own supply. Kelvin seems to be the only true believer of the bunch, but they all would probably characterize themselves as good people. That’s why it resonates when Eli Gemstone declares in the first episode, “Maybe John Seasons [one of the preachers he’s screwing over] is right. Maybe this family is an abomination.” Logan Roy would never attempt this kind of objective self-assessment, because the only abomination for him would be losing the empire he’s built.

The Roy family’s unrelenting ruthlessness—all the backstabbing and even front-stabbing—is what makes Succession a joy to watch. But while both that family and the Gemstones are filled with broken people, the latter is the only one of the two that seems to want to heal. When Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) attempt friendship in season 2, it feels like a strategic alliance on Survivor. But when Kelvin and Judy Gemstone come to Jesse’s aid, or when a number of other familial bonds appear strengthened, it’s because there’s love buried beneath the emotional estrangement.

As cruel and unkind as this family can be, and as much as some of their activities should surely land them in jail, you can’t help but root for them more often than the characters in Succession. The Roys feel like the result of genetic mergers and acquisition, while the Gemstones are more like a real family.

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They may not be truly righteous, but they have some heart.

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