Like “Succession,” “The Righteous Gemstones” follows a family poisoned by wealth and power at a crucial inflection point; like “Barry,” the show has a visual panache that defies our expectations for a half-hour comedy. But unlike either show, “The Righteous Gemstones” resists the impulse to justify its grandeur with dramatic or tragic Jake elements. The Gemstones are not the Roys, forced to confront the emotional poverty beneath their material riches, nor Barry Berkman, scrambling for redemption without real accountability. They’re buffoons, their idiocy only amplified by the motorcycle chases, musical sequences and megachurch sermons that immerse us in their world. The straightforward comic tone doesn’t detract from the sharp observations made by creator Danny McBride and longtime collaborators including Jody Hill, John Carcieri and David Gordon Green. Instead, it channels their insights into masculinity, the South and American conservatism, previously honed on “Vice Principals” and “Eastbound & Down.”
At the start of Season 3, the Gemstone siblings — eldest son Jesse (McBride), singer Judy (Edi Patterson) and deeply repressed Kelvin (Adam DeVine) — are technically in joint control of the church founded by their deceased mother, Aimee Leigh (Jennifer Nettles), and now-retired father, Eli (John Goodman). Despite the de facto throne room they’ve built for themselves (“What we’re going for is that when people come in to meet, they feel a little less,” Jesse explains), the younger Gemstones have a far shakier grip on authority than their parents. Without Eli to shepherd their flock, the televangelists are now vulnerable to rivals like the Simkins siblings, a trio of orphans led by Stephen Dorff ’s Vance who’ve had to work for the role the Gemstones inherited. McBride’s ability to attract top-tier talent for relatively small parts continues to pay dividends; elsewhere this season, Shea Whigham stops by as an aging race car driver courting the Simkins’ endorsement.
Meanwhile, Eli’s estranged sister May May (Kristen Johnston) comes out of the woodwork to ask for help. May May’s branch of the family is more radical and much less well-off than her brother’s; Eli threads the needle of Christianity and capitalism, but May May and her ex-husband Peter (Steve Zahn) are true believers who handle snakes and prep for the apocalypse. When Peter’s extremism goes too far and provokes the ire of the U.S. government, May May asks Eli to take in her sons Chuck (Lukas Haas) and Carl (Robert Oberst) — igniting old resentments about their different lifestyles and points of view.
To fans of “The Righteous Gemstones,” these subplots might sound familiar. Last season, too, featured a figure from Eli’s past who exposed the unsavory greed behind the dignified preacher (Eric Roberts’ Junior); that saga also introduced eccentric figures from the wider world of evangelical celebrity (the Lissons, a scammy couple played by Eric André and Jessica Lowe). The show isn’t making new points about the hypocrisy of for-profit worship. It just underscores them in ever more audacious ways: with monster-truck rallies and racing cars and episode-length flashbacks and a poolside music video starring Walton Goggins’ veneered crooner Baby Billy dressed as a giant oyster. Like most of “The Righteous Gemstones,” that last bit must be seen to be believed. Once you have, though, you’ll be as loyal a congregant as any in the Gemstone Salvation Center.