When it was originally on: 2019-present
Original network: HBO
Where you can stream it now: HBO Max/HBO Go (Is HBO Now still a thing?)
Had I seen it before: Yes! I’ve seen it in its entirety.
What IMDb says: Follows a world-famous televangelist family with a long tradition of deviance, greed, and charitable work.
Why I picked it: Besides just “I know I like this show and wanted an excuse to revisit/talk about it?” Well… for whatever reasons I’m not sure HBO or premium cable more broadly has ever really dominated comedy the way they’ve come to dominate drama. When I think “HBO” maybe the first 5-10 shows that come to mind are all dramas. When I think “HBO Comedies” I either think of things that first started years ago and perhaps overstayed their welcome such as Sex and the City or Curb Your Enthusiasm, or I think of slightly-more-recent shows like Girls and Insecure that stretch the definition of “comedy” a bit more, falling into a category I call the “half-hour character study” which can still be good, but not as reliably funny as a comedy maybe should be.
That’s a bit strange, because it’s not like HBO is bad at comedy. In the past, I’ve examined the pilots for Silicon Valley, Barry and Veep and I’ve watched almost all of those shows in their entirety and quite enjoyed them. Hell, Silicon Valley is one my favorite comedies of all time, and Righteous Gemstones is up there with it. It’s just that I don’t think “comedy powerhouse” when I think HBO.
What I liked: The opening of this pilot had me sold on the entire series immediately. The Gemstones are doing a mass baptism in China only for us to realize that they’re in a wave pool, and someone turned the waves back on. It’s just fu*$ing funny, and first and foremost that’s what a comedy needs to be. While I typically think of “the HBO comedy” as being a bit more restrained and refined, I kind of love how this show is a bit more ridiculous and the entire cast is 100% committed to the bit.
I also love how well the pilot takes us into the individual worlds of each sibling. We know Jesse is married and has two kids, including one he’s estranged from. We know Calvin is still living the bachelor life with a former Satan-worshiper who isn’t a roommate, but still seems to be at Calvin’s place all the time. And we know Judy lives with her fiance, but is hiding that fact from the family since of course it’s not good and Christian to cohabitate before marriage.
You get the sense that all three siblings have been used to getting their way for their entire lives. They are arguably, three of the most childish adult characters ever to be put on television. Yet patriarch, Eli Gemstone, is a bit more grounded. Without straight up telling us, you get a great sense of how Eli probably had his heart in the right place when he initially got into televangelism. Yet we also get scenes where he’s speaking to other pastors in the area, and is unwilling to play nice with them. Eli seems like a good apple who got corrupted somewhere along the line, whereas his children have always been selfish little brats. That not only sets up comedic potential, but also some interesting internal conflict for Eli. Will he ever be able to reconcile how spoiled his kids are with the “greater good” he claims to serve? Will he be able to put the kids in their place if and when it counts?
There’s also a lot of interesting loose ends that I could see playing out for quite some time. Throughout the course of the pilot we learn:
- There are rival congregations in the area who don’t like the Gemstones opening up a new worship center on their turf.
- Jesse is being blackmailed with a tape of him doing drugs with some of his friends and some prostitutes
- Judy is engaged to someone who may not even believe in God, and says that him and Judy are going to move off the family compound.
What I didn’t like: Honestly… coming up empty.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes! It’s a funny satire of a target that’s all too easy to pick on, and I look forward to them making fun of it more.