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When Satire is More Toothless Than Reality


The Righteous Gemstones is a new HBO comedy from the writing and producing team of Danny McBride and Jody Hill. I haven’t watched McBride and Hill’s previous shows, Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, but I tuned into Gemstones because of its premise. The show focuses on the titular dynasty, a family of white evangelical preachers who have built a megachurch with multiple locations and revenue streams, all funding a lavish lifestyle. John Goodman plays patriarch Eli Gemstone, while McBride plays older son Jesse. The other Gemstone children are Judy (Edi Patterson), who is perpetually frustrated at being sidelined by her father and brothers, and Kelvin (Adam Devine), the family baby who fills his house with exercise equipment and arcade games.

It’s a fun enough show, if you like that sort of nasty-people-being-nasty-to-one-another humor. Anything that puts Goodman back on my screen is a good thing (I know he’s still on Roseanne-without-Roseanne, but I have no interest in that series). The role of Eli is one that is obviously tailored to his skill for conveying gravitas with a definite undertone of menace, as we see in a scene in which Eli cavalierly dismisses a coalition of pastors from smaller churches who are concerned that his planned expansion into their area is going to lure away their followers. And McBride has given himself the show’s meatiest, most complex role in Jesse, a blustering bully who is both softer than he lets on and a great deal less substantial than he’d like to believe. Jesse is also the engine of the season’s overarching plot. In the show’s premiere, he receives an anonymous blackmail message containing a tape in which he and his entourage are seen partying with women (who, if they’re not actually prostitutes, are nevertheless not their wives) and doing drugs. He enlists Kelvin and Judy in raising the blackmail money, but things go predictably awry during the exchange, leaving the Gemstone siblings to frantically cover up multiple crimes, which will no doubt snowball into greater catastrophes over the course of the season.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with such a premise, obviously, but it also encapsulates my main problem with the show. Which is: it is 2019, for crying out loud. Is anyone surprised when evangelical preachers are caught with their pants down and their noses full of powder? To be honest, on the scale of megachurch pastor peccadilloes, Jesse’s ranks so low that it barely even feels like an indiscretion. All the women on the incriminating tape appear to be adults, for one thing. There are no overheard racial slurs or abusive language. No sign of violence. Everyone, in fact, seems to be having an (admittedly adulterous and, vis-a-vis the drugs, illegal) good time. As sex tapes go, this one is practically wholesome.

By the same token, it’s hard to know how to take Jesse’s conviction that if the tape gets out, it will spell “the end of the Gemstones”. Surely he’s had enough experience watching his fellow pastors and conservative leaders go through their own scandals to know the playbook: issue an expression of remorse, take some time off with your family and minister, and return after an appropriate interval and with the announcement that Jesus has forgiven you. It’s almost charming that the show assumes the Gemstones wouldn’t have a crisis management team on retainer with this very playbook locked and loaded, just waiting for the blanks to be filled in with the specific details of the scandal.

The problem here is less that McBride’s satire is less shocking than reality (hours before I sat down to write this post I read about Jerry Falwell Jr. funneling millions of his Christian university’s dollars to his 23-year-old personal trainer, which is not even the first time he’s given an absurd sum of money to a young man in his employ; seriously, dude, level up) and more that I’m not even sure what he wants us to condemn the Gemstones for. Corruption, greed, hypocrisy? Not only are those traits most of us take for granted in evangelical preachers, they’re not even close to being the worst things about the movement.

I’ve only seen two episodes of the show, but nevertheless it is glaring how little it has to say about the cultural and political impact that white evangelicalism has had on American society. There’s no indication that Eli is connected to politicians or lobbying groups, or that his sermons urge his followers to vote for Republicans. The series begins with Eli and his sons on a mission trip to China, but the show elides the role that evangelical churches have played in urging foreign governments to enact brutal anti-gay legislation of the kind they’d love see in the US but can’t (yet) make a reality. The cast is carefully multiracial, with no acknowledgment of American evangelicalism’s roots in the justification of slavery, white supremacy, and nativism. And though some perfunctory acknowledgment is made of the subservient role of women in evangelical circles—Judy, for example, frequently complains that she hasn’t been given a prominent role in her family’s ministry, which would be the epitome of white feminism if Judy wasn’t clearly the sort of woman who would die before calling herself a feminist—it feels almost jokey, as if McBride wants his characters to be TV-unpleasant, and isn’t willing to let them cross over into the sort of full-on domestic violence that leavers of “complementarian” marriages or the Quiverfull movement frequently report.

In other words, McBride seems to operating under the assumption that his characters’ bad behavior is a refutation of the tenets and values they’ve been raised with and are now propagating to others. Whereas everything we know about white American evangelicalism suggests that this sort of behavior is, in fact, a natural outgrowth of it. The Righteous Gemstones gets hung up on the hypocrisy of Jesse and his siblings trying to preserve a lifestyle that, by their own loudly-stated principles, they no longer deserve. But who, in 2019, still believes that the conservative right cares about hypocrisy? As we’ve said many times on this blog, the foundational value of conservative thinking is hierarchy, and especially in evangelical circles, that hierarchy expresses itself in the idea that certain people get to command, preach, and dictate to others. Those people can’t be called to account, because there’s no one in the hierarchy with the authority—the right—to do so. You can’t satirize evangelicalism without understanding this, which The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t really seem to.

An obvious retort here would be that the show isn’t trying to be a social satire, but simply a comedy about dumb people doing dumb crimes. But in that case, you still have to ask what the impact of such a depiction is. I can’t help but feel that the ultimate effect of a story like The Righteous Gemstones will be to make evangelicals look more cuddly and lovable than they deserve—aw, they’re just a bunch of idiots with too much money! (This is particularly plausible in the wake of the second episode, in which we learn more about the people blackmailing Jesse, and find that they are even more unpleasant than he is.) And let’s be honest, wouldn’t most of us sign up to live in a world in which the worst thing you could say about evangelicals is that they’re greedy idiots who cheat on their wives and do blow? But we don’t live in that world, and a depiction that lulls people into thinking otherwise might even be dangerous.

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