Drew Millard on The Righteous Gemstones as anthropology.
I have no idea how it was wherever you grew up, but in Polk County, North Carolina, it was a fairly normal thing for our school system to outsource the edutainment of its students to basically whoever was down to show up and seemed theoretically capable of sustaining our attention for 45 minutes. One time in middle school, they gathered us at the outside amphitheater so we could watch an animal trainer show us a live condor; when I was a junior in high school, they brought in a guy who’d grown up in the area and had gone on to be NFL quarterback to talk to us about how much fun he’d had growing up in western North Carolina, how cool it was playing pro football, and also oh by the way he was running for Congress would we please all tell our parents that he came by our school.
The assembly that sticks out in my mind the most, though, is the one which felt like a dream even as I was witnessing it. They never told us what we’d actually be getting when they announced these things, so as we filed into the auditorium we could have been gearing up for anything from the triumphant return of the condor to a presentation from the in-school police officer about astronomy.
What we got, though, was a strongman. You know, a dude wearing one of those lopsided leotards, shaved head, corny-fun hair metal playing in the background, big muscles, high energy, very eighties-meets-traveling-carnival aesthetic. He lifted some big weights. We cheered. He smashed some stuff with his bare hands. We cheered some more. He told us about how he used to be not-strong but then he dedicated himself to something bigger than himself and that’s how his actual self became bigger than his old self used to be and now he could do… THIS! And by “THIS!” of course, I mean to say that he gave that speech while holding a gigantic phone book in his hands, and at its climax, ripped the thing plum in half.
It was, and I’m being objective here, sick as hell. Our cheers reached the heavens. So yes, he explained, he was extremely strong. But! He was not as strong as God, and in fact it was God himself who’d given him the strength to do the phonebook trick! We cheered some more, some of us a little less emphatically than before given that we realized we’d gotten tricked into being super amped about a Jesus thing at school. Then he did it again, presumably for the sake of emphasis, and we thought fuck it and cheered harder.
I started thinking about that guy again while watching the second season of The Righteous Gemstones for reasons that, if you’ve seen the show, should be clear.
If you’re a Gemstones neophyte, however, the reason is this: Adam Devine’s character Kelvin Gemstone, the youngest of three heirs to Eli Gemstone’s (John Goodman) televangelical megachurch empire, spends basically the entire season recruiting and training — then eventually struggling for power against — an entire legion of Christian strongmen he calls the “God Squad.”
Just like the lone Paladin who tore phone books asunder for my high school edification, the God Squad comes from a very specific, er, faith tradition: that of the Power Team, an ’80s-era troupe of Jesus-loving bodybuilders who proselytized to the masses by performing feats of strength. It didn’t really make sense back then, it doesn’t really make sense now, but it has never mattered because people are more likely to listen to you if you’re a physically dangerous individual who has just used your body to do a bunch of super crazy shit.
Such is the genius of The Righteous Gemstones, the brainchild of writer, star and showrunner Danny McBride and his frequent collaborators, directors Jody Hill and David Gordon Green. McBride and company — who respectively hail from Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas and met while attending the North Carolina School of the Arts — don’t necessarily specialize in satirizing the south so much as they simply hold a mirror up to it and let the chips fall where they may.
Their film The Foot Fist Way, an independent release which was eventually picked up by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, centered around a delusional karate instructor who lords over a strip-mall dojo in Concord, North Carolina, Hill’s hometown and a place whose biggest attractions are Charlotte Motor Speedway and a really fucking gigantic Bass Pro Shop. It’s essentially a mega-suburb of Charlotte, which means strip malls are its default form of real estate. McBride, Hill, and Green are willing to take these blandly tacky environments seriously, to engage with strip malls, gigantic gas stations, and urban sprawl and allow them to become integral to their work in the same way that the New York streets of the ’70s informed Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Their next project, the show Eastbound and Down, moved things about an hour southwest to Shelby — about thirty minutes east of where I grew up. Eastbound follows Kenny Powers, a John Rocker-esque former big-time Major League closer who bounced from team to team and used to be so popular that when he played for Seattle, he “had the goddamn Spoonman from the Soundgarden videos” coming to his cookouts. But when he lost his fastball, he quickly discovered that nobody has much time for a racist, homphobic, and drugged-up shit-talker who’s never learned the meaning of the word “No.” And so, with no options and little more than a Ford Bronco and a storage unit full of worthless memorabilia to his name, he moves back to his hometown of Shelby, takes a job as a middle-school P.E. teacher, and tries to put his life back together in the most delusional way possible.
Throughout its four seasons, Eastbound functions as a fable about the bad things that happen when we refuse acceptance and growth, and instead try to force our own reality on the world around us. And though the show’s first season was actually filmed in Wilmington, it nevertheless nailed the archetypes of people who end up sticking around a small southern city that’s just the right size to act as a black hole for those raised there.
While Eastbound was a location-hopping character study that asked what would happen if you plopped the worst person in the world into environments where politesse and site-specific customs covered a bed of slithering iniquity, Gemstones offers a whole family of maniacs set in an unnamed part of South Carolina that feels like everywhere and nowhere at once. Paterfamilias Eli (John Goodman), eldest son Jesse (McBride), middle child Judy (Edy Patterson), and Devine as baby brother Kelvin — not to be confused with Baby Billy Freeman, the brother of Eli’s late wife, played with psychopathic intensity and pathos by the incomparable Walton Goggins — live on a compound full of the sort of gaudy McMansions that you’ll find dotting Carolina backroads, where acres of giant house + big-ass barn + tractors + horses + gated fence + random Greco-Roman statues are often flanked by small single-wide trailers.
In environments such as these, Christianity isn’t a religious choice as much as it’s a social obligation, and for many, especially among southern Baptists, one’s relationship to God is a transactional one, where as long as you go to church semi-regularly and are deeply politically conservative, you’re basically allowed to do anything you want. This isn’t to say that this Gemstones-y version of identitarian Christianity is a rule — it is absolutely not — but it’s ubiquitous enough that it reaches a critical mass that acts as insurance against charges of hypocrisy.
The fact of the matter is that the south is funny because it’s ridiculous. Like, I can’t remember the exact details of the whole thing, but my neighbor growing up definitely went to jail for being involved in an organized ring of tractor thieves. One friend’s dad was a former professional drag racer whose compound included an airplane hangar, a forklift, a single-wide trailer, and a giant yard that occasionally doubled as a mud pit where people would race beater cars while crashing into each other. (I once rode shotgun as his twelve-year-old son zoomed around in one of these races; it was fantastic.)
Another friend had an unfortunate habit of waking up early to go hunting and then forgetting to take his gun out of his truck before he got to school, which I’m pretty sure is a felony; years later, he became a wildlife officer and briefly went viral after someone posted a video of him wrestling a deer to the ground in order to safely remove it from a thrift store. And then a couple years ago, a series of unsolved horse deaths prompted many in the local equestrian community to worry that there was a horse serial killer on the loose. (Local police ended up concluding that the killers were likely feral hogs, but that doesn’t explain how one of the horses died from a bullet wound.)
It was also a world in which the Confederate flag was so entrenched in the local culture, worn on t-shirts and dotting bumpers of Mustangs and pickup trucks, that if you suggested that such imagery might be, y’know, like, offensive, people (read: white people) would legitimately look at you as if you were crazy for so much as bringing it up. Of course Kenny Powers would own a boogie board with a Confederate flag and a weed leaf on it, and of course McBride would have thought to give him one because he saw the image at an arcade while he and Hill were scouting for props in Carolina Beach, NC.
Because McBride, Hill, and Green are genuinely of the south, they understand this innately, and use their insider’s eye to pile one photorealistic element atop another until they’ve reached a point of utter surreality, where the God Squad exists in the same world as a team of killer Cycle Ninjas and it’s hard to tell whether the things based in truth are more ludicrous than the stuff that isn’t.
This is to say nothing of how Jesse Gemstone spent much of Season One, which aired in 2019, trying to deal with someone blackmailing him over his clandestine partying and infidelity, only for it to come out a year later that Jerry Falwell Jr. was involved in a blackmail imbroglio of his own. Or that when a plumber found $600,000 that IRL megapastor Joel Osteen had previously claimed had gone missing inside the walls of Osteen’s church, the first comparison that came to many people’s minds was The Righteous Gemstones itself: Art spoofing life only for life to come back and one-up the art. —Drew Millard