As The Righteous Gemstones‘ second season begins, it almost feels like a pilot for a different show. Airing with a third season renewal already under its belt, and in a completely different television landscape than when “Better Is the End of a Thing Than Its Beginning” aired 820 days ago, “I Speak in the Tongue of Men and Angels” (and subsequently, “After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come”) almost feel like an introduction to a completely different series, albeit one built upon the same foundational DNA as season one. The result is a more expansive, meaner version of The Righteous Gemstones, one that really leans into the intergenerational conflicts teased out in “Interlude” and the latter half of season one.
With its double-sized premiere, the opening hour and a half of season two feels a lot like the series pilot, so full of plot and dialogue it is bursting at the seams, with a complexity of plot and character it barely gets through by the time its drops its big twists on the audience. In fact, there’s so much new stuff to introduce, Gemstones doesn’t really bother with what happened before “I Speak in the Tongue of Men and Angels” – Judy and BJ are now married, Baby Billy is nowhere to be seen (yet), and Gideon is neatly back in the family fold as the producer of their Sunday live show. From the opening flashback to the closing clusterfuck, The Righteous Gemstones is absurdly confident in its audience keeping up; which, admittedly, is a bit of a tall task.
There’s a lot happening in these two episodes; but the most telling images are perhaps the two that stick out the most amongst the show’s slightly oversaturated pallet – and easily the most disturbing, given the first season’s general proclivity for keeping its most violent moments at arm’s length. In the first episode, director Jody Hill lingers on parallel shots of broken limbs; pieces of the body that are still attached, but warped and twisted in disturbing, painfully unsettling ways. They are both catalytic moments for Eli, the first a suicide attempt by a disgraced pastor teasing the intrigue of the season, and the latter a lingering shot on thumbs recently broken by the Gemstone patriarch, twisted and destroyed joints jutting out violently in numerous unsettling directions.
Gemstones hangs on these images, these broken results of misplaced ambitions and shitty intentions, as an avenue into a darker sophomore season of The Righteous Gemstones. As the Gemstone children look to further secure their legacies and Eli sucks on the teat of nostalgia to fill the empty void in his heart, season two of Gemstones is immediately more violent and pointed than season one’s meandering tale of siblings and evangelical Christianity. The threats here are both more obvious (in the form of the Lissons, trying to grift $10 million from Jesse to build a coastal Christian resort that definitely is never going to come to fruition), and more ominous than before, especially once “After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come” unexpectedly pivots and introduces murder into the equation.
For the most part, the Gemstone children adhere to the template of season one; except for Judy, of course, whose character has gotten noticeably more confident as a Christian musician and married woman (even Eli notes at one point that she is getting worse with age). Jesse is still scheming to secure his legacy, bickering with Kelvin, whose homerotic indulgences are reaching dystopian new heights in the form of his Christian bodybuilding entourage – throw in a few shots of John Goodman longingly looking off-camera, and we’re right back to the usual hijinks, right?
In a way, that is true; but with the additions of TWO legendary Erics – Eric Andre and Eric Roberts – The Righteous Gemstones is setting up for its second nine-episode series to be remarkably different than the first. With the former, TRG immediately opens itself up to another level of absurdity and black comedy, reflecting on evangelical entities adapting to the digital and pandemic age (though the show does not say “pandemic” or “COVID”, it is heavily implied the pandemic has occurred in their world). Eric Andre is an obvious choice to add to the cast; the premiere doesn’t have a lot of time to harness his particular energy beyond a showcase introductory scene, but it is obvious flag-planting for some truly insanity to follow – the kind of McBride/Hill comedy where the pair’s most incisive reflections on culture can be found, and a subplot I have a lot of high hopes for (the fact they’re already selling vacations for a resort that hasn’t broken ground yet is a wonderful sign of potential conflict to come).
Adding Eric Roberts adds a completely different dimension; as one of Hollywood’s most versatile – and prolific – performers, Roberts’ addition as a mysterious, unsavory figure from Eli’s teenage years opens up a world of potential for Gemstones – and perhaps more importantly, helps tether this show to its first season. Junior’s appearance, and Eli’s sudden acceptance of him back in his life, touches on an important theme from the show’s first run: Eli’s loneliness, the void left by Aimee Leigh that’s been filled with nothing but mind-numbing work. With Junior, Eli gets a hit of the nostalgia his depressed, aging mind always seeks (we’ve seen him watching old tapes of him and Aimee Leigh multiple times before) – and for Gemstones, opens a number of avenues to explore two acting veterans’ comedic and dramatic chops.
On top of all that, of course, is the big twist of these opening episodes, and the moment where I felt like The Righteous Gemstones miiiiiight just be introducing too much stories for a nine-episode season. When the Gemstone children arrive at journalist Thaniel Block’s (Jason Schwartzman, in a great cameo) cabin to discuss the story he’s working on, they arrive to find him dead, and two other dead bodies outside the house. They run home…. only to see Eli pull up with Martin, equally covered in blood. It’s a strange moment, mysterious and foreboding in a way unfamiliar to Gemstones – but an exciting one, one that completely resets expectations for both what the season is, and what this series is aiming to be.
McBride’s talked before about building Gemstones as something to run much longer than his previous series; with this episode, those aspirations to build a modern equivalent to Dynasty are starting to become more apparent. It is nakedly dramatic in a way season one never operated, even when it was dealing with its own blackmail plot and murder schemes; and given how it pulls in so many different Gemstone characters in the inception of the story, suggests a much larger ripple effect through the series. In its own twisted way, it adds new texture to the show’s already rich stories of frauds, grifters and holy men – and as a natural way to start building Gemstones as something with much bigger, more melodramatic aims, it is certainly a promising sign of the show’s dynamic potential to be something profoundly different in season two.
It would be easy to mistake the established rhythms between characters as a series being complacent (and it would be even easier to constantly compare this show to that OTHER show on HBO, which I AM BEGGING US ALL NOT TO DO for the next two months). The Righteous Gemstones, though it returns as unabashedly vulgar and subtly reflective as it was before, is a markedly different, darker – and perhaps better – show in its sophomore premiere; one that, if it can stick the landing, could pull off one of the more ambitious, successful retoolings in recent memory… and you know, remain one of the funnier, more acerbically honest series on television, which these opening two episodes firmly re-establish with each scene.
- Welcome to The Righteous Gemstones season two reviews! Welcome back to those who joined me for season one; if you didn’t, catch up here!
- Not a ton of Keefe in this episode, but he’s wearing a suit and leading the Christian buff boys around – big improvement from the dick-exposing gimp suit we last saw him in, at the end of season one.
- Joe Jonas shows up for a fun cameo, and also gives us the chance to hear Jesse ask if he’s the one “who is married to Game of Thrones“.
- Very sad we didn’t get to see Judy and BJ’s Disneyland wedding, but boy am I looking forward to a season full of jokes about them.
- Before his murder, Thaniel was working on a story about Aimee-Leigh potentially being abusive to Gemstone employees. Very interested to see if the show how this show continues to challenge her legacy, especially as this season is intently focused on Jesse’s pursuit of securing his own.
- One more time…. we will not compare The Righteous Gemstones to that other HBO show. We are better than that!
- Edi Patterson as Judy Gemstone is a top five performance on TV right now – I’m so glad it is back on television right now.
- Gideon is filming sermons, Pontius died his hair, and Abraham is…. jerking off and leaving his sticky underwear everywhere? … Talk about inserting your legacy, your very DNA, in places that it is not wanted, huh, Jesse? (I changed my mind; THIS is my favorite visual metaphor of the premiere).
- I almost choked laughing when BJ is swirling around the massive chalice of milk he is drinking at church lunch. I cannot wait to see his baptism.