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Series / The Righteous Gemstones

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"You are about to enter a world much larger than your own, a world full of riches and glamour. A world full of... Gemstones."
Baby Billy Freeman

The Righteous Gemstones is a 2019 HBO dark comedy that follows a world-famous televangelist family who rule over an empire of megachurches and present themselves as the epitome of holiness, but behind the scenes, they're riddled with dysfunction. It was created by Danny McBride, with frequent collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green as executive producers and directors. The show stars McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam Devine and Walton Goggins.

The plot of the first season involves the Gemstones trying to open a new megachurch against the resistance of the locals while the eldest son deals with being blackmailed by mysterious parties over a scandalous video.

HBO renewed the series for a second season in September 2019 but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic until January 2022. A third season was greenlit shortly thereafter.

This show provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Eli is an emotional example. His three children are all adults but they all still live on the family compound under his thumb. Jesse is married and has children of his own but Eli still controls his money. Judy has to hide that her fiance is staying at her house and Kelvin is implied to not have been able to come out of the closet because of him. The fifth episode of season one, which flashes back to the family's younger days, implies that Eli — while still somewhat of a jerk — was not always quite so harsh or domineering and that age, ruthlessness, greed and grief (over his wife's passing) have hardened him. Season two provides some Character Development, and he softens somewhat.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Kelvin is the only Gemstone child to not be in a relationship, is extremely coiffed, and shares his house with another man (Keefe), with whom he has a friendship that is brimming with homoerotic undertones. In season two, Kelvin becomes obsessed with leading a retinue of bodybuilders. The show exaggerates this trope with ever-escalating scenes of intimacy, nudity, and emotion, but it is ultimately left unclear whether Kelvin is a closeted gay man, straight and oblivious to Keefe's feelings for him, or if both men are straight and simply completely ignorant to how their relationship appears to other people.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's not clear how Kelvin managed to succeed in carrying and lifting the cross during his trial with the God Squad. Did he rig it? Did he get help from God? Did he simply persevere?
  • Anti-Climax: At the start of Episode 8, after getting away with raiding the Gemstone vault, Scotty quite literally runs into "Baby Billy" Freeman and his wife Tiffany, and is shot in the head unceremoniously by the latter.
  • Artistic License Ė Gun Safety: Somehow, Roy Gemstone manages to get his hands on a shotgun twice with the second time resulting in a man's death.
  • As Himself: Joe Jonas appears in Season 2, Episode 2.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Season 1 has Scotty, who is killed off after robbing the Gemstones.
    • Season 2 has Glendon Marsh Sr, who threatens Eliís family and meets his end moments later courtesy of Eliís father and his rifle.
  • The Baby of the Bunch: Kelvin is about ten years younger than his siblings (veering into Practically Different Generations) and Jesse and Judy never let him forget it.
  • Badass Driver: Gideon is a skilled motorcycle stuntman. In season two, he hunts down the remaining two motorcycle ninjas and defeats both of them, even using his driving to dodge gunfire.
  • Big Fancy House: The Gemstone compound, where all of the Gemstone children and Eli live in their own mansions, is extremely massive and also has an amusement park and a golf course.
  • Blackmail: Someone got their hands on a video of Jesse snorting cocaine and sleeping with prostitutes while he was at a conference and wants $1 million for it.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Gemstones are riddled with interpersonal conflict in spite of their wholesome and united public image.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Judy has a three-minute monologue about how she raped her economics professor under the deluded belief that he was flirting with her. It only goes downhill from there.
  • Butt-Monkey: No one can stand Judy's fiance, BJ and he's the target of a lot of Jesse and Kelvin's jokes.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: Due to focusing on an insanely rich family of televangelists. In addition to a massive family compound with a handful of huge mansions and a private amusement park, they also have a squadron of private planes titled "The Father," "The Son," and "The Holy Ghost."
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Wouldn't be an HBO show without it. Though the characters do watch their mouths in front of people from church and only really curse profusely amongst themselves.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Eli leads his family in preaching about holiness and morality, but behind the scenes, his own family is riddled with dysfunction.
  • Cold Open: The season 1 finale, "Better Is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning," opens with a flashback at Aimee-Leigh's deathbed. She dies quietly in a hospital bed, with her family around her. Eli and his children join in prayer, but are distracted by a little buzzing bee. And... things go downhill.
    • This becomes a Call-Back at the end of the episode when Baby Billy is struck by lightning. Once again, a bee invades the room as the Gemstones are praying over Billy's body and this time, they don't bother it. Baby Billy survives.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: Truth in Television for most "gospel of wealth" evangelists. The Gemstones' outrageous affluence is a large part of their appeal to their audience.
  • Corrupt Church: The titular Gemstones, as a parody of crooked televangelists.
  • Dare to Be Badass: Eli gives Kelvin this speech when he wants to give up on the rebellious daughter of a prominent donor. He tells Kelvin that he didnít shove him aside to youth pastor work because he didnít trust him, he put Kelvin in charge of it because he did. Kelvin succeeds in getting through to her by the end of the episode.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Judy describes her only "boyfriend" before BJ. Their "relationship" began when she locked him in his office, covered his mouth with one hand, and masturbated him with another. BJ doesn't even seem all that phased by this, being more appalled by Judy kidnapping his son. It also doesn't stop him from taking her back.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first time we see the Gemstones, they're in China trying to baptize as many people as they can in a wave pool, while the two sons argue over who has a superior technique, showing how the family is more concerned with showmanship and scale than actual theology. When they get home, Judy shows a lot of jealousy to her brothers for being included in the affair, establishing her as the ostracized sibling.
  • Evil Uncle: Baby Billy Freeman is the brother of Eli's wife, making him the uncle of Eli's children. He's become a bitter and jealous man who seeks to undermine the Gemstones for his own profit.
  • Fakeout Opening: Season 2, Episode 9 opens with Gideon being chased through an office building and jumping out a window. It turns out that it's just a movie he's filming.
  • False Prophet: Explored and zig-zagged; Eli Gemstone is head pastor of a massive megachurch, and uses his wealth to live a lavish lifestyle, as well as providing mansions and endless perks for his three children. However, not only is he shown to be a diligent preacher, but he also struggles with justifying his riches after losing his wife, who is implied to have kept his feet on the ground. He also seems to be a genuine Christian.
  • Fingore: A preferred technique from Eli when he was younger and working for Glendon Marsh Sr as a hired goon. He would grab his victims' hands and snap their thumbs backwards.
  • Foreshadowing: In the second episode, the head blackmailer Scotty is fighting the unnamed third blackmailer. The unnamed one does a lot of fancy jumps after he is knocked down. Jesse earlier mentioned that his son Gideon left to be a stuntman in Hollywood. Sure enough at the end of the episode, Gideon is revealed to be the unnamed blackmailer.
  • Greedy Televangelist: Donations from the family's megachurches fund their lavish and debauched lifestyles and enable their awful behaviors. While the family members have varying degrees of devotion to the church and God, the trend for the Gemstones is prioritizing profit over true belief.
  • Hen Pecked Husband: BJ has almost no power in his relationship and struggles to get respect from the rest of the Gemstones, who treat him as little better than hired help.
  • Hollywood Atheist: BJ's atheist sister is condescending to the Gemstones and openly mocks BJ during his baptism. When Eli makes a friendly comment about maybe baptizing BJ's family some day, she bluntly shoots him down. Her behavior provides a rare opportunity for the Gemstones to look polite and supportive by comparison.
  • Hypocrite: The entire family claim to be people of God but are really just in it for the money, which is not a biblical way of living.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Episodes have titles like "Now the Sons of Eli were Worthless Men" and "Better is the Ending of a Thing Than Its Beginning," which, if they aren't properly Biblical, sure sound Biblical.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: How Scotty is killed. In season 2, this is how Thaniel Block meets his own end.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: All three of Eli's children are immature, self-centered, hedonistic, and hypocritical idiots.
  • Ironic Echo: At one point in the fifth episode of season 1, Eli and Aimee-Leigh survey the lands that will one day form the Gemstone estate. Eli comments to Aimee-Leigh that he'd one day like to build houses for all his children there so that they'll always be close by. At the time, Eli is saying it in a fond, loving tone, suggesting that at this point it's just an innocent dream that symbolises how happy he is to have his family around him. Of course, we've seen that Eli will eventually achieve his dream — and that it's become an example of his domineering, controlling personality that has basically turned into a gilded, miserable prison for everyone.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Most of the Gemstones are this to varying degrees; deep down, they're all capable of doing the right thing, especially for each other, but this is usually eclipsed by their extreme pettiness and greed.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Judy may have been callous and blunt with Tiffany, but she was absolutely right that Baby Billy running out on her was more likely than him having a stroke or coming back with a truck full of Funyuns.
  • Kick the Dog: The Lissons seem like a decent sort, at least as far as mega-church pastors go, but they show their true colors when Jesse reveals that he cannot afford to invest in their resort. They rudely storm out and even stiff the Gemstones on the bill.
  • Last Disrespects: Played with in the Season 1 finale. When Aimee-Leigh dies in a hospital bed, at first her family joins hands in prayer... then a bee distracts them... and within minutes the family is screaming, sobbing, and destroying the hospital room to try and kill it, to the horror of a crowd of onlookers. (At least they left Aimee-Leigh in peaceful repose.)
  • Local Hangout: The Gemstones, along with Martin's family, go to Jason's Steakhouse for lunch after church every week. They've been doing this ever since Jesse and Judy were kids.
  • Memorial Statue: A prominent setting is a small garden featuring a bronze bust of the Gemstones' late, beloved matriarch, Aimee-Leigh. Eli sometimes visits to chat wistfully with his wife.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Judy resents her place and sees herself as overlooked between commandeering Jesse and Kelvin, the "baby" of the family. She calls this out as sexism, only to meet dismissal from all sides (except BJ, who believes in her).
  • Minnesota Nice: Block's interaction with a neighbor is dripping with Southern passive aggression and New York bluntness. The southerner approaches Block and informs him in a friendly tone of his B&B's rule against smoking, then probes him for information about himself in the guise of casual conversation. Block shuts him down and bluntly states that he's not inclined to chat with someone who made him put out his cigarette. Still affecting a friendly demeanor, the southerner criticizes Block as a rude outsider before leaving.
  • Misaimed Fandom: In-universe, the family is watching The Neverending Story and Jesse is laughing at Artax's death.
  • Morality Chain:
    • While the Gemstones were always somewhat less Godly and righteous than their public appearances would suggest, as shown in episode 5: Interlude, Aimee-Leigh, the recently-deceased matriarch of the family, was the one who kept everyone more-or-less on the right track, with them being more restrained with their wealth and more sincere with their intentions towards Christ, and that her death was what prompted them to start giving in to their worst impulses.
    • Episode 5 also portrays Eliís dad as being this to the family. The elder Dr. Gemstone was a good hearted, compassionate preacher who wasnít in it for the money. He gets Eli to see that Judyís birthday party was over the top and that she and Jesse are brats. He also tells Eli that he should just be happy with the church heís got.
  • My Fist Forgives You: Baby Billy reunites with his son Harmon near the end of Season 2 for the first time in nearly thirty years. While Harmon made peace with the abandonment, Baby Billy demanded some stronger token of atonement. Harmon requests "one closed fist punch to the face", delivers it, and immediately helps his father back up after the punch floored him.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • The opening sequence and setup for the Gemstones' TV show back in The '80s closely resembles those of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's show The PTL Club. Eli's emotional transition from cheerfulness to dour unpleasantness is also reminiscent of Jim Bakker's on-air persona during his attempted comeback in The New '10s.
    • Eli Gemstone, especially with his glasses, build, and personality, resembles Jerry Falwell.
    • Jesse's bouffant hair style, muttonchops, paunch, fondness for guns and entourage of abused bootlickers make it clear that he's based on Elvis Presley. He also resembles Jerry Falwell Jr, who was also the son of a wealthy televangelist who was blackmailed with evidence of a sex scandal.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Jesse coins the name "Motorcycle Ninjas" for a group of biker assassins. While they do wear black and attempt assassinations, there is nothing specifically "ninja" about them. This gets called out to him.
  • Not Me This Time: While Junior may have threaten Eli over the course of season 2, he wasn't the one who sent the motorcycle ninjas to kill Eli.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: In season two, the Gemstone siblings stumble upon a scene of carnage. We later get a flashback to this scene from a different perspective, revealing how it occurred.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Baby Billy might have silver hair and at least one grown-up child, but he's still "Baby" because that was his stage name when he performed with Aimee-Leigh. Even Eli's kids refer to him as "Uncle Baby Billy."
  • Red and Black and Evil All Over: The assassins who target the Gemstones wear black clothes and ride black bikes accented with red lights.
  • Replacement Goldfish: In season 1, Baby Billy treats his niece Judy like a stand-in for Aimee-Leigh, going so far as to perform "Misbehavin'" together and using "Judy-Leigh" as a stage name. Eli accuses Baby Billy of cynically invoking the trope to prey on Judy's feelings of discontent and to ultimately make money off Aimee-Leigh's likeness. But the interlude does show Eli that Judy has depths he's overlooked.
  • Rule of Three: Eli uses his thumb-breaker move three times in Season 2; first in a flashback when he's shaking down someone who owes Glendon Sr. money, then on a belligerent jerk who Junior gets into a fight with and finally on Kelvin when he damages Aimee-Leigh's portrait.
  • Serious Business: Kelvin takes the reality show-like rules for his God Squad very seriously, to the point that he allows himself to be kicked out of his own home for losing a challenge.
  • Sibling Team: After some Character Development in season 1, in "After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come" (season 2 episode 2) Jesse leads his siblings in a badass fist bump and says "Let's go save this family." Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin have grown in their ability to handle threats together... or at least, they think they have.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • The Lissons try to replicate an outrageous stunt they'd just watched in a Young Guns when the motorcycle ninjas come for them. It involves one of them hiding in a chest while the other throws them out the window, so they can surprise their attackers. It fails spectacularly.
    • After a whole season of treating the God Squad's rules as Serious Business and allowing himself to get kicked out of his house over a challenge, when Kelvin finally wins back his authority, Torstig casually reminds him that he could have moved back in to his own house at any time and didn't need to "make it weird."
  • Unholy Matrimony: The Lissons share everything with each other and were equally complicit in their nefarious deeds.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: In the season 2 episode "And Infants Shall Rule Over Them," after seeing family patriarch Eli wounded in a hospital bed, several of the Gemstone siblings and their spouses vomit all over the parking lot.
  • Wham Shot: The third blackmailer shows up at Jesse's home and is identified as his son Gideon.
  • Workout Fanservice: In Season 2, we're treated to numerous glamor shots of Kelvin's troupe of muscular male followers. They rarely wear shirts and often put their strength on full display while working out. It's implied that this is their primary interest for Kelvin.