Danny McBride may be the reigning national avatar of a very specific sort of white male frustration. On his HBO series “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals” — both of which he co-created with Jody Hill and starred in — he brought life to a pair of downwardly mobile fellows who had already wrung every bit of satisfaction they might get out of the minor authority they enjoyed. Expecting exaggerated deference from the world around them, and failing to get it as the middle-class positions they occupied melted away, McBride’s characters (a washed-up pro athlete in “Eastbound & Down,” a thwarted school administrator in “Vice Principals”) were successfully drawn portraits of failure. With narrowed, mistrustful eyes, comically unmanageable mops of curls and a robust frame that could read as either object of fun or physical threat, McBride’s lost American men crackled with ambient loathing.
Which made them match their moment. “Vice Principals,” whose electrically loathsome first season aired during the politically roiled summer of 2016, felt then, and feels yet more now, like a show that will define this decade. Its follow-up, the new series “The Righteous Gemstones,” retains some similar elements from McBride’s previous work: The actor plays a character whose self-regard swamps him and warps his relationships with family and even with reality.
Here, though, certain facts are flipped. McBride’s Jesse Gemstone faces none of the class struggle of the “Eastbound & Down” or “Vice Principals” protagonists: He’s the wayward scion of a wealthy and famous family of megachurch preachers, and has been given all that he could want in the way of material pleasures and fealty from the world around him. His challenges come from his seeming acknowledgment that he cannot control his appetites and his resultant need to control their aftermath, to keep his family or the wider world from learning how and under what influences he spends his free moments. Jesse’s struggles, though real, feel at times empty, stripped of any political resonance or even the rage that animates McBride’s most thrillingly dangerous work.
The Gemstone family might resemble a cracked-mirror reflection of their neighbors on HBO’s air, the Roys of “Succession.” Like the Roys, the Gemstones are led by a brash visionary (played here by John Goodman) whose charisma stems from his willingness to be brutally short with his adult children. The Gemstones share, too, an obsession with cultivating and maintaining wealth and a feckless inability to maneuver in situations where their wealth cannot protect them. Jesse, for instance, has effectively written off the possibility of a relationship with his elder son, while Kelvin (Adam Devine) brings a tone of little-brother bickering to his every adult conversation, and Judy (Edi Patterson) rebels against her low position in the family with bitter sarcasm and florid sexuality.
In “Succession,” the unable-to-launch kids of privilege make a sharp, if sometimes overdrawn, point about the crippling nature of family fortune. The Gemstones get up to more high jinks, but the baroqueness of their particular predicament tends to restrict us from getting to know them well. That Goodman’s Eli has made his name from his unknowability, and even to his family is more persona than person, is an elegant character beat, if one that keeps us, too, from yet greater understanding. That Kelvin and Judy are only loose sketches of characters is a consequence of frenetic, jam-packed scripts that cannot let them be or do more. Perhaps the most effectively developed figure in the season’s early going is Walton Goggins as the Gemstone kids’ thwarted uncle, a flamed-out Christian music star whose lack of sustained success provides the poignancy that this show often throws over in favor of explosiveness. He’s given the chance to preach in a Gemstone family satellite campus — a mini-megachurch in an abandoned Sears building — and takes it, having no other options.
Goggins gets to play the hurts and the insecurities that McBride usually assigns himself, and while variation can be fruitful, altering the formula works to flatter McBride while giving him fewer opportunities to shine as a performer. When Jesse uses a prayer to brag about both his close relationship with God and his own fame — telling God “the legacy of my family carries immense weight, but I take it You are no stranger to that” — it’s a glimmer of the show “Gemstones” might be, a depiction of human vanity and frailty, and the inability to get out of one’s own way. But the slow-burning realization of the first several episodes is that Jesse, though self-obsessed, is often right. He’s the wisest and best-adjusted of his siblings, whose inanities make him seem like a credible future patriarch. His rocky relationship with his son comes to seem less and less his fault, and more like a harm he works to ameliorate; his need to contain information about his after-hours revelry is a fight against vicious blackmailers in whose shadow he begins to appear deeply sympathetic. The show lets him off easy.
“Gemstones” can be credited with showing us more of what McBride can do; though his previous characters had their appeal and their reasons for behaving as they did, they lacked Jesse Gemstone’s pathos. But the conceit also gives the series disappointingly little to say. The show depicts a family of conniving, money-hungry preachers who’ve gulled untold numbers of followers to keep paying them, and then focuses on a circuitous path to redemption before the fun or the dark insights of wickedness have been given time to play out. Its best asset, a premise that can open up to sharp commentary and granular sociological depiction, is lost. Not merely does this series have little real perspective on what goes on in the family church services, but its push to redeem Jesse seems to seek a depth and soulfulness neither script nor performance consistently serves.
Which is not to say that Jesse is empty; a scene in which he struggles for détente with his son, ending by telling him, “I still like you,” is a fine piece of acting by McBride. But the institution Jesse serves is one that feels both elementally American and, in the age of stadium-size Hillsong celebrations, bleeding-edge current; the further into Jesse we delve, the further from us the family church recedes. Maybe this itself is the show’s commentary — that Jesse’s true self can be found only when the worship to which he purports to have devoted his life fades from view. Yet it’s ultimately unsatisfying. In previous series, McBride brilliantly diagnosed a soul-sickness among American men. “The Righteous Gemstones” cures its central character before we’ve had a chance to see quite how deep the illness goes, or what toll it might take.
“The Righteous Gemstones.” HBO. August 18. Nine episodes (six screened for review).
Cast: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam Devine
Executive producers: Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, John Carcieri, Jeff Fradley, Brandon James.