H.B.O. Is Tackling Religion in the Most Remarkable Ways

The show bears obvious similarities to its critically fetishized network peer “Succession.” In each, we focus on three entitled siblings, potential heirs to an empire built by their charismatically imperious father, and their desire, real or imagined, to transcend the implications of their birthright. But while the Roys of “Succession” are armored with stylish nihilism, the three Gemstone offspring, lieutenants in the family’s sprawling spiritual operation, are less mannered and far more relatable. Even as they behave badly, even appallingly, you can sense their maladroit grasping for the morality they’ve always understood to be interchangeable with their privilege. Television’s depictions of religion have often leaned either toward po-faced dogma or scouring atheism, but here is one that dares to split the difference. McBride has made a career of playing swaggering Southern blowhards, inhabiting them with such familiarity that they transcend simple mockery and become almost poignantly human; “Gemstones,” too, has a fondness for its characters that runs parallel to the humor it wrings from their failings.

And the Gemstone children definitely have failings. The eldest, Jesse, is a pompous hothead whose default response to any insult is light violence and who, despite his persona as a family man, has enjoyed the sort of hard-partying lifestyle that would make early-1970s Led Zeppelin blush. His sister, Judy, is a flamethrowing libertine with a staggeringly foul mouth and a tendency to transgress against her lovingly milquetoast husband. The youngest, Kelvin, is comparatively sweet but locked in a closet of his own making, profoundly in love with his best friend and prayer partner.

Like a staging of “King Lear” at a monster-truck rally, the show has a loneliness that undergirds its berserk energy. Much of it is delivered by John Goodman, who brings a touching pathos to the role of the church’s patriarch, Eli Gemstone — a man of humble beginnings whose best intentions toward his kin only seem to multiply their avarice and shamelessness. There is also the conscience of the family, his deceased wife, Aimee-Leigh, seen only in flashback. (And, once, as an ill-advised hologram.) We see her counsel that “money ain’t everything,” but these words float by, unheeded, against the ever-escalating scale and spectacle of the Gemstone Salvation Center or the family’s own theme park. Their Ferris wheels and roller coasters have replaced precisely the kind of down-home, small-town, tiny congregations that represent the family’s own roots, but the Gemstones are masters of a great American skill: They can see themselves as the salt of the earth even while surrounded by Croesus-like wealth.

This year, “Succession” concluded its final season on a bracingly cynical note, suggesting that its four seasons of familial infighting were little more than a meaningless sideshow in one cul-de-sac of the corporate world. “Gemstones,” by contrast, has come to hint at a better future. Some of the first season’s action involved Jesse’s oldest son, Gideon, having scandalized the family by lighting out to Hollywood to become a stuntman. By Season 3, he is firmly back in the fold, demonstrably more mature than his own father and serving as Eli’s chauffeur. The affection that develops between the two characters culminates in the season’s finale, in which Gideon asks his grandfather if he might teach him to be a preacher — as if suggesting that the dysfunction of today’s Gemstones might be a generational blip brought on by the distorting effects of wealth and power. At its most serrated, the show has satirized the unrepentant predation that marked the heights of televangelism, as churches were remade into spiritual money-laundering operations. At its most generous, though, it has been remarkably forgiving, letting each sibling fumble toward something like self-awareness. This is a portrait of damaged people born into the redemption business, trying to find anything redeemable about themselves, continually held back by the profit motive.

This is not the only fascinating vision of the church on HBO these days. There is also “Somebody Somewhere,” which recently finished its second season. Bridget Everett plays Sam, a truculent self-styled outcast who has returned to her small Kansas hometown following the death of her sister. In a cheerful twist on the usual Hollywood portrayals of “flyover” Christian America, Sam finds companionship in a church-adjacent “choir practice,” where she joins her best friend, Joel, who is both deeply devout and openly gay. In the Season 2 finale, Sam — blessed with an extraordinary singing voice she has become reluctant to use publicly — belts out “Ave Maria” at the wedding of a trans man and a cis woman. This is a rare representation of the way religious fellowship connects and enriches communities of many sorts. Tonally, it approaches the polar opposite of “Gemstones,” but what the two series share is a knack for finding the strangeness and nuance in American religion, a topic Hollywood has more often regarded as a zero-sum contest between the wholesome and the heretical. True salvation, both programs understand, may be someplace in between.

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