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The Righteous Gemstones, which premiered Aug. 18, is the third HBO series created or co-created by and starring Danny McBride. It's not every comic actor who can make that claim. Indeed, if you exclude Chris Lilley's single-season Australian imports, which most readers will not be able to name, there is only Danny McBride.

The Righteous Gemstones

9 p.m. Sundays

HBO

Focusing on a family of Carolina televangelists, Gemstones follows Eastbound & Down (2009-13), which tracked the fall and rise (and fall and rise) of former major league baseball pitcher Kenny Powers, and Vice Principals (2016-17), in which McBride's Neal Gamby schemes to become a high school principal. It completes what McBride has described as a "misunderstood angry man trilogy," though I would argue that if anyone misunderstands Kenny Powers, Neil Gamby and Jesse Gemstone, it is Kenny, Neil and Jesse.

All are set in the South — and McBride, a Georgia-born Virginian, ramps up the accents for cornpone comic effect. All revel in and repudiate a certain confused masculinity. Fatherhood, complicated by separation, is an issue in all three series. (McBride's own parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade.) Kenny Powers gets a family, loses and regains it. Neil Gamby, divorced, is desperate to connect with his daughter. Jesse Gemstone has forbidden any mention of his oldest son (Skyler Gisondo), who left the family to pursue a career as a Hollywood stuntman.

The shows are tightly plotted in a way that draws you from one episode to the next, and fine performances, from players well- and less well-known, strike individual notes that keep characters free from cliche. I don't think they're funny, exactly, though ever so often a bit of slapstick or a throwaway aside will make me laugh out loud. But it's not so much because the jokes are bad as that laughter doesn't seem to be quite the appropriate response to all the pain and humiliation.

McBride, 42, made his first mark in show business in 2008 with memorable supporting roles in Tropic Thunder, as an enthusiastic explosives expert, and Pineapple Express, as a drug dealer baking a birthday cake for his late cat.

Jody Hill and Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green, college cohorts from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, remain his creative and business partners. Green and McBride co-wrote the recent Halloween reboot, which Green directed. Hill co-created McBride's first two HBO series.

In the family tree of comedy, they are close cousins to, and collaborators with, School of Apatow graduates Seth Rogen and James Franco and were supported early on by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, whose Gary Sanchez Productions produced Eastbound & Down and the 2006 The Foot Fist Way, which starred McBride as a martial arts instructor.

McBride has a sweet face, with long-lashed eyes, but he's not built like a conventional leading man. He does unsettling things with his hair and dresses his alter egos in ways that might be described as impudently stylish or aggressively straight. Yet there is always a good-looking, relatively well-balanced woman who seems to find him attractive, and who, most important to the long arc, can see through the boorish blowhard to the lost boy beneath. You can go along with it or not: There is a long tradition in comedy of mating frogs with princesses, from Bob Hope to Woody Allen to Rogen, who has made (at least) two films specifically on that theme.

His alter egos are self-contradictory and, one might even say, complex. They are vulgar and puritanical. They cannot admit a weakness or a mistake without half taking it back. They complain of their suffering in order to appear strong and lie to cover themselves. Each is continually on the hunt for the respect or recognition he is both convinced and not quite sure he deserves. The characters speak of themselves in epic terms, but for all their apparent self-regard, maintaining it is a full-time job.

Televangelism is an easy target. But for all their hypocrisies, their failings, their foul-mouthed bickering, their materialism and sense of privilege, their doing unto others before others can do unto them, the Gemstones are never depicted as charlatans. They are bad Christians, not insincere ones.

But religion is not mocked, nor are the family's followers. (Before they divorced, McBride's parents taught Bible classes using puppets. There is a passing nod to that in the show.) The aesthetic excesses of their megachurch feel more well-observed than exaggerated. As a tale of rivalrous dysfunction in a powerful family, it could be set in anywhere. Indeed, The Righteous Gemstones quite resembles another current HBO series, Succession, except that Gemstones has something like heart, a flicker of soul.

"As much as you try to act like a man, you're just a softhearted man," someone tells one of McBride's characters.

I managed not to write down which in my notes, but it's a line that would fit any of his series. And though it's meant as an insult, it's really the point. It's what makes the actor and his creations likable. With apologies to Romberg & Hammerstein: Give me some men who are softhearted men.

Weekend on 08/29/2019

Print Headline: Misunderstood, mostly by himself, is McBride

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