In the new series The Righteous Gemstones — stream every episode on NOW TV — the main characters are the Gemstone Family, preachers who believe their ministry of televised sermons and missionary work puts good out into the world. However, the Gemstones preach in an ostentatious megachurch that resembles a sports arena, fly on a trio of private jets, live on a sprawling gated compound with a separate McMansion for everyone, and even built their own branded amusement park and golf course.
Show creators Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green all grew up in the American South, where the programme is set. They met while studying filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts and previously collaborated together on Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals. “The idea that this country is built on the idea of ‘one nation, under God’ started with small little one-room churches, and we’re at a place now where church is a megachurch — they’re coliseums! — it says a lot about Western culture,” said McBride, who also stars in the show, in an interview with Vox.
The Gemstones’ holier-than-thou attitude comes from believing that their wealth is a sign that God really has blessed them, and (more realistically) that their money and reputation shields them from the consequences of their worst actions. So when their greed, ignorance, and violence starts to blow back in their faces, the Gemstones are caught completely off guard and forced to finally reckon with their selfish lives.
Dr. Eli Gemstone
Dr. Eli Gemstone, portrayed by John Goodman (The Big Lebowski, Roseanne) is the patriarch of the Gemstone family. His wife, Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (country singer Jennifer Nettles) died a few months before the start of the series, and the wound that her passing left on the family is still raw. Eli is also the most prominent public face of the Gemstones. He leads the weekly televised worship service before a rapt crowd of 17,000 at the Gemstone Salvation Center in rural South Carolina, delivering sermons and touting the thousands of baptisms they perform on their missionary trips abroad.
Eli’s most un-Christian attitude, however, has to be his ruthless expansion of the Gemstone brand. He unashamedly admits that he wants to swallow up several other moderately sized nearby churches so their donations flow into his pocket. “Because of his grief, he’s just falling apart quick, and he’s been focused on the business side of things for a long time, and I think he feels justified in doing that,” Goodman told Vox.
Jesse is the eldest of Eli’s children, but he lives in his father’s shadow. Of the little Jesse does within the Gemstone organization, he devotes most of his energy making sure his younger siblings do even less. He’s quick to ridicule both Judy and Kelvin at every opportunity — easy targets, to be fair — diminishing his siblings in his father’s eyes by showing they can’t stand up for themselves.
Like a lot of characters McBride has played, back to 2006’s The Foot Fist Way, Jesse seems to think he’s living in an action movie. His first instinct in any situation is violence, albeit in a buffoonish, ineffective way. “Jesse is just a man who’s had so much privilege that he doesn’t even kind of understand it,” McBride told Vox. “I think it’s showing you the corrosion that can happen even when you have everything that you want.”
Judy plays an ambiguous administrative role within the Gemstone church — and she’s not happy about it. Judy is never on stage during church services, she doesn’t go on their foreign mission trips, and her brothers often ridicule her for playing the role of a secretary. “Judy’s kind of a wild cat and can’t totally be trusted to act right,” said actress Edi Patterson, who also works as a writer on the show. “That’s more the reason she’s not in the spotlight with her brothers, but it really helps her brain to go, ‘You guys are doing this to me.’”
At the same time, Judy is compulsively dishonest with just about everyone in her life. Her father forbids cohabitation before marriage, so she has to hide her fiancée in her house whenever anyone comes to visit. She lies so frequently and so easily, about the tiniest of things, that the rest of her family ignores it. But Judy is also deceitful in several major ways that come into play later in the series.
Kelvin is the youngest of Eli’s children (he claims to be 29-years-old at one point, but his high school diploma says he graduated in 2001) and works primarily with the youth of the church. Kelvin comes off as a “hipster pastor,” with a D-list pop star fashion sensibility that’s not out of place in the real life world of Christian ministers. “One of my favourite Instagram accounts is Preachers N Sneakers and it just shows all these preachers and the $1,000 tennis shoes that they always wear,” actor Adam DeVine (Workaholics, Pitch Perfect) told Entertainment Weekly.
Compared to the rest of his family, Kelvin is not particularly greedy like his father, violent like Jesse, or dishonest like Judy. Instead, Kelvin’s biggest flaw is that he’s well aware of all his family’s transgressions and never calls them out on it or does anything to stop them.
“Baby” Billy Freeman
Walton Goggins (Justified, The Hateful Eight) plays Baby Billy: Aimee-Leigh’s silver-haired and teeth-whitened older brother. Before Aimee-Leigh met Eli, she and her brother were hit gospel singers, performing in front of massive audiences on tour. After a long time away from the Gemstone family, he returns with a shockingly young girlfriend and a lyrical style of preaching compared to Eli’s more measured intonations.
Goggins told Entertainment Weekly that Baby Billy’s dated wardrobe helped him portray a 70-year-old with only minimal makeup and no prosthetics. “He’s a man who is in an arrested state of development and is living a life of nostalgia, because he thinks he should be somebody other than who he actually is,” Goggins says. That is to say, Baby Billy feels like he’s owed a substantial portion of the Gemstone wealth, along with public appearances in the limelight, because of the groundwork he laid for the family brand when he and Aimee-Leigh were gospel-singing celebrities. To get what he thinks is rightfully his, Baby Billy tries to manipulate the rest of the Gemstone children, leveraging their worst qualities to work against the family.
Denny Watkins has written for Vice, Scientific American, Syfy Wire, Health, Details, Maxim, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Wine Enthusiast, and Chicago Athlete. He is a nerd.