If you asked 100 fans of The Righteous Gemstones to tell you what they liked best about it, you might get 100 different answers, from the skewering of for-profit Christianity, to the simple pompous swaggering of the Gemstone siblings, to anything involving the heartbreaking, hilarious character called “Uncle Baby Billy.” My favorite aspect, which is slightly harder to explain, are the moments where a character—any character, really—shamelessly doubles down on some piece of absurd logic until the entire conversation devolves in a kind of demented spiral that ends up hilarious and disturbing in approximately equal measure. An example:
Judy Gemstone (played by Edi Patterson in a performance so funny it almost defies words), in the women’s restroom at the gaudy baptism of her husband BJ (Tim Baltz), decides to confront her sister-in-law KJ, a skeptic and apparent agnostic, whose attitude has rankled her all day. (In a funny real-life twist to what comes next, KJ is played by Lily Sullivan, the actual fiancée of Baltz.) Judy sashays up to her, part strut and part West Side Story gang dance, flicks water in her face, and then—this is where it gets really good—tells her that “siblings have to hate siblings’ spouses.” When asked why, she doesn’t hate to explain that sexual competition is at the root of it. Her brothers, she says, hate BJ, because BJ “took my ass off the market.”
“Jesse and Kelvin might be my brothers,” she goes on, “but that don’t mean they’re not sitting up in their rooms at night thinking someday they might hook up with me.”
Needless to say, this is a ridiculous, revolting idea, and KJ, playing an effective straight man, says so. In a normal world, this would cow a character even as outrageous as Judy, who might realize that her initial idea—that siblings spend all day fantasizing about each other sexually—was just a little bit insane. Instead, she doubles down.
“You’re telling me you would not want to fuck your fine-ass brother?” she asks.
This forces KJ to tell her that no, she wouldn’t want to do it, and again, in a sane world this might stop the conversation in its tracks. In a sane world.
In this world, Judy Gemstone doubles down again, putting a fake pistol to KJ’s head.
“Okay,” she says undeterred. “What if I got a big old gun and I put it right to your head and said, ‘oooh, KJ, I’m gonna kill you unless you get nude right now in this living room and fuck your brother in front of me.’ Then would you fuck him?”
When KJ admits that, yes, in that circumstance, facing death, she’d probably have to do it, Judy takes this as validation of her idea that they’re in an intense rivalry for BJ’s affections, and leaves triumphant—after licking her face in a final act of intimidation.
Now, look… all of this stuff is so fucking odd that it’s almost embarrassing to type it out. It’s also hysterical for three main reasons. First, the performances; second, the shock value; and third, the sheer darkness of the logic. I found myself laughing when I watched it originally, and then again when I imagined the process that must have gone into writing this scene. Not only did this idea have to be introduced—there’s an inherent sexual rivalry between these people—but once the straight woman reacted with horror, they had to dig themselves in deeper, twice, and even devise a scenario where the unnatural coupling would happen by threat. It’s bizarrely funny to me that the writers (McBride, Patterson, and John Carcieri) not only had this idea in the first place, and not only put it in the script, but then had the, uh, “courage” to chase it down this strange logical path. Just as Judy refuses to admit she’s wrong and twists the rhetoric until extracting a half-concession from KJ, the writers refuse to be ashamed, or to pull a single punch as they pursue the thread. On multiple levels, it’s brilliant.
It’s also weird, and very dark. A lot of times when I read about darkness in McBride’s shows, it centers on acts of violence and murder, which are indeed dark. Maybe the darkest of all came in Vice Principals, when what seemed like a petty revenge mission by the two main characters ends in them literally setting fire to their rivals’ home. But somehow, all of that pales for me in comparison to the darkness of the dialogue. The main characters in a McBride production are relentlessly self-interested, but more than that, they are creatures where the superego and id are merged together in an unholy Freudian knot, and all the insane subconscious impulses and repressed desires and resentments are—constantly—made verbal.
And what’s a little uncomfortable to admit about it all is that it works, in part, because they start from some small psychological nugget of truth. To riff off the scene above, there are people who become jealous when their sibling gets married, even though my residual faith in humanity screams at me that it is usually, hopefully, not a symptom of sexual rivalry. When Jesse Gemstone and his wife Amber nearly get lured in to an expensive real estate deal simply because of their desire to be friends with a cooler couple who are obviously using them, it’s played for hyperbolic laughs, but it stems from our real desire for belonging and status, which does make us vulnerable to con artists. When Kelvin Gemstone assembles a “god squad” of muscle men, confronts his father, and gets this thumbs broken for his audacity, it’s miles beyond anything we’d call realistic, but as a broad depiction of a youngest son trying to stake out his place in the presence of loud older siblings and an imposing father, it rings all too real.
McBride has chosen an unlikely way to deal artistically with these impulses, and the ludicrousness of his characters and plots sometimes comes close to hiding the fact that he’s dealing with them at all. It would be easy to to view Gemstones and Vice Principles and Eastbound & Down as some combination of shock/insult/physical comedy, all cloaked in a kind of farce, and it’s very enjoyable on those levels. But despite the bombast, and the gutter dialect, none of it can quite distance us from the fact that there are actual people shining through the fog of these wild characters, and that they feel and they hurt.
And that gets at the heart of the “darkness” in a McBride production. His genius, and the genius of the team of writers and actors he’s assembled, lies in taking seeds of the human psychological experience, planting them in the minds of some extremely damaged characters, and letting it all blossom into outrageous plotting and dialogue. Beyond the laughter (and there’s so much laughter) we’re all left a little disturbed. But it’s not the grotesque flowering of the story that really disturbs us; it’s the awareness of that lonely, recognizable seed, which isn’t buried anywhere near deep enough for us to deny.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .