Reality and storytelling blend together smoothly on The Righteous Gemstones, both within the world of the series and behind the scenes.
The titular family in Danny McBride’s dark evangelical comedy ended the show’s first season by incorporating into their preaching the climactic events viewers had just witnessed. During the closing moments of the finale, patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) used a betrayal by brother-in-law Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) as the basis for a sermon, converting a familial crisis into an opportunity to control the narrative. (Baby Billy does something similar himself.) In a case of life imitating art, McBride and company have since followed suit: baking into their show some of the weirdness of our current era, in perfectly Gemstonian fashion.
At the start of the new season—which premieres on HBO Sunday, January 9—our antihero clan is thriving as ever, with tons of cash and nearly as many secrets. It turns out that the family has made it through the pandemic by taking the concept of remote prayer to the next level, with their own spiritual streaming platform: Gemstones On Digital Demand, or GODD. It’s The 700 Club for the Netflix age, an infinite pipeline of Christian programming that eldest son Jesse Gemstone (McBride) presents as a legitimate rival to Peak TV.
“If they’re gonna fill the airwaves, 24/7, with that garbage,” he declares to a packed house in the family’s megachurch, “we’re gonna do the same thing.”
It’s an entrepreneurial venture that makes so much sense for this crew, one imagines they might have landed on it even without a pandemic. “I feel like the Gemstones honestly have more in common with corporations than they do with your average Christian,” McBride says in a recent Zoom call with Fast Company. “So the idea that they would also see this as a revenue stream and a way to increase their footprint, it just felt very much how they would navigate these waters today.”
The idea of a Gemstones streaming service wasn’t in McBride’s original vision for the second season. He and his team had just started production, back in March 2020, when the novel coronavirus (as COVID was known way back then) ground filming to a halt. McBride spent the ensuing months indoors with his family, tinkering with the new scripts. Although the general trajectory of season two remained the same, some of the ways in which the family arrives there ended up changing—which is where the streaming idea comes in.
But the genesis of this invention has just as much to do with Quibi as it does with COVID.
“I was sitting at home during the pandemic, and everything that’s on the news is just about these streaming services and who’s getting into what and how people are watching, and it just seemed so ridiculous,” McBride says of the year that brought us Paramount Plus, Peacock, HBO Max, and others. “I always imagined that the Gemstones have such a big operation that they would have multiple shows on, but the idea of a streaming service, that was definitely like part of the times.”
McBride made the Gemstones’ streaming platform a product of the pandemic, in order to anchor the show within our reality. As a savvy evaluator of how much of the real world to lace into his fiction, though, McBride was also careful to make this the only product of the pandemic on his show.
“I was just kind of imagining what I would wanna see on TV in January of 2022,” he says, “and it definitely isn’t any more about COVID.”