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HBO's The Righteous Gemstones: preach your viewers well

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John Goodman heads up a family of prototypically phony preachers.
HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Aug. 18th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Danny McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Cassidy Freeman, Tony Cavalero, Tim Baltz, Walton Goggins, Skyler Gisondo, Greg Alan Williams, Jennifer Nettles, Dermot Mulroney
Produced by: Danny McBride, Jody Hill, David Gordon Green

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Creator/executive producer Danny McBride takes his usual approach with his latest HBO series.

Following the paths of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, McBride’s The Righteous Gemstones is coarse, irreverent, sometimes excessive and completely unconcerned about whether you’re offended or not. In the case of a series about crooked, greedy televangelists, “irreverent” is the most operative word. But riotously funny also applies. Even God might be busting a gut.

McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, oldest son of patriarch Eli Gemstone (the ubiquitous but always welcome John Goodman). There’s also younger brother Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and festering sister Judy (a gem of a performance by Edi Patterson), who’s generally pushed aside when dad and sons are doing any big family business.

The three men are first seen at a “24 Hours of Saved Souls” marathon in China, which washes out during the climactic baptism celebration. They then fly home separately, on an unholy trinity of planes named The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Judy has a few choice words for them upon arrival back home in South Carolina, where they all live palatially. “Kelvin, eat my ass” is among them. You gotta love her.

The first six episodes were made available for review. They rather oddly range in length from just under an hour for the first one to a bit over a half-hour for No. 6. Sunday’s premiere sets up a blackmail scheme built around video of Jesse snorting coke amid a gaggle of topless women. The head blackmailer wears a devil mask, and there’s also something of a surprise in store for those who haven’t already deduced it before the “reveal” in Episode 2.

Meanwhile, an unaware Eli continues to mourn for his deceased wife, Aimee-Leigh, the “magic” who kept the family together. Righteous Gemstones is sentimental rather than cynical in this instance. Eli truly loved Aimee-Leigh, who makes a glorious appearance in a flashback Episode 5 that so far is the series’ best. By this time, Walton Goggins (McBride’s co-star in Vice Principals) has already made his mark as Aimee-Leigh’s (Jennifer Nettles) problematic brother and fellow evangelist, Baby Billy Freeman.

The present-day Baby Billy has a shock of white hair the size of Idaho. But it’s in Episode 5 that he really soars with what used to be the trademark song-and-dance routine he did with his sister. Trust me, you’ll be immensely entertained by the cornpone “Misbehavin,’ ” which is rinsed and repeated with a new partner in Episode 6.

Eli Gemstone, who has come to despise Baby Billy, nonetheless hires him to head up a new “Prayer Center” in a vacant shopping mall space that used to be occupied by Sears. The idea is to steal the flock of Locust Grove’s resident reigning preacher, Johnny Seasons (Dermot Mulroney), proprietor of the town’s First Baptist Church. But winter is coming when Seasons spits out his contempt for Eli’s rampant greed. “The Gemstones are a disgrace,” he rages. “An absolute disgrace to all ministries. Con men. Baboons.”

Those are fightin’ words. But a brawl doesn’t break out until Jesse dubs sister Judy’s boyfriend, B.J. (Tim Baltz), a “wisp of a man” during the family’s weekly Sunday brunch.

McBride’s Jesse strides around in too tight shirts while his devoted wife, Amber (Cassidy Freeman), is too awash in creature comforts to be anything but blissed out. Their three sons are another matter, though. The oldest is prodigal and the stay-at-home middle one has no problem with profanely speaking his mind. Then there’s that incriminating video. It’s all enough to make Jesse equal parts cocksure and insecure. And McBride is long accustomed to broadly playing those dualities.

Goodman, who’s doing double time on ABC’s The Conners, has an equally grand but somewhat more restrained time playing Eli. In Episode 3, his dry, matter-of-fact dismissal of Aimee-Leigh’s no-account brother -- “Baby Billy’s a sack of shit” -- is so perfectly delivered that it seems heaven-sent.

DeVine’s Kelvin, whose best friend is a muscular former Satanic cult member named Keefe (Tony Cavalero), so far is having a tougher time breaking through as a resonating character. His strongest episode, No. 4, telescopes earnest Kelvin’s headlong efforts to be an effective youth minister.

As sister Judy, though, Patterson registers from the moment she opens her mouth. Her inflections and digressions are comedy gold. The devil has won if she doesn’t get an Emmy nomination.

And now some brief words about penises. You’ll see some, particularly in Episode 3. It’s the new “equality,” as is also demonstrated in HBO’s recently released Euphoria series. But as a turn-on, well, there’s really nothing to see here.

Other than that, The Righteous Gemstones is hallelujah-worthy for its performances, energy, comedy, dramedy and occasional little heart tugs. HBO is giving it a major promotional push in times when its cupboard needs replenishing after the recent losses of Game of Thrones and Veep. There’s no big message from on high here. Just enjoy yourself to the point that when HBO passes its monthly collection plate, Righteous Gemstones will be one big reason why you’ll keep on giving.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Old address, new approach in Fox's BH90210

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The 90210 cast is all smiles at a reunion within a reunion. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Aug. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Tori Spelling, Jason Priestly, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green, Shannen Doherty, La La Anthony, Vanessa Lachey, Ivan Sergei, Christine Elise McCarthy, Ali Liebert, Karis Cameron
Produced by: Chris Alberghini, Mike Chessler, Paul Sciarrotta, Gabrielle Carteris, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestly, Tori Spelling, Ian Ziering

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The address is CBS for the most success with TV reboots.

The most famous address of all, though, belongs to Fox. And its six-episode “event series” reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210 -- shortened to BH90210 -- for the most part makes for a surprisingly satisfying time travel to the current “heightened” lives of seven original cast members. (Charter co-star Luke Perry, who also had agreed to take part when his duties on The CW’s Riverdale allowed, died in March of this year. He’s fondly remembered in the closing moments of Wednesday’s premiere episode.)

Fox’s original 90210 ran for a decade from 1990 to 2000 before The CW network took another dip with 90210, which lasted from 2008 to 2013. Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling and Shannen Doherty made cameo appearances in that one, but the series centered on a new generation of teens.

In BH90210, though, the surviving principals are all in, with Doherty (the last to commit) so far much less seen in the two episodes made available for review. The hook is a 30th anniversary Vegas reunion that ends up being both a disaster and a catalyst. It’s also a springboard for what’s to come in Episode 2, with Spelling and Garth plotting to pull off a 90210 reboot (just as they did in real life) while their fellow cast members initially blow them off. Spelling in particular picks up the mantle of her late father, Aaron Spelling, who created 90210 and a bushel basket of other hit TV series. “No one stopped my dad,” she says of his doggedness in bringing his ideas to TV screens.

In their “heightened” modes (somewhat cued by Larry David in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Matt LeBlanc in Showtime’s Episodes), here’s what’s up since the original series wrapped.

*** Tori Spelling (Donna Martin on the original 90210) is a mother of six children who’s married to a semi-slacker named Nate (Ivan Sergei). Their Spelling the Beans series has just been canceled, and they’re up against it financially. Spelling and her real-life husband, Dean McDermott, are parents of five kids and have co-starred as themselves in two “reality” series.

*** Jason Priestly (Brandon Walsh) is a director married to a publicist who yearns to start a family. The real Priestly also has directed, but has two children with his wife, a makeup artist.

*** Jennie Garth (Kelly Taylor) is divorced twice and going through a third. Her headstrong daughter, Kyler (Karis Cameron), yearns to be an actress, which Garth emphatically doesn’t want for her. In real life, Garth has three children and is twice-divorced.

*** Ian Ziering (Steve Sanders) is married to a career-obsessed blonde bombshell who’s lately auditioning for a role on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. He’s more intent on hawking his own brand of products. The real-life Ziering achieved major success with the cheesy series of Sharknado movies. After contentiously divorcing a former Playboy model, he remarried and is the father of two children.

*** Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea Zuckerman) is newly a grandma and president of the Actors Guild of America. She’s also searching for her true sexual identity. In real life, Carteris is president of the merged Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She’s been married to a stockbroker since 1992, and they have two children.

*** Brian Austin Green (David Silver) is mainly a house husband married to a star hip-hop artist known as Shay (La La Anthony). They have three children. The real Green married actress Megan Fox in 2010. They separated but later reconciled, and have three sons together.

*** Shannen Doherty (Brenda Walsh) is involved in animal rescue efforts and long estranged from the rest of her 90210 mates. In real life, the controversial Doherty, who’s likewise an animal activist, regularly feuded with the show’s co-stars before leaving after four seasons.

These are the basic fact/fiction parameters of the first reboot in which a complete ensemble cast plays themselves, not the TV characters they made famous. Then again, they’re all set to begin playing those characters anew by the end of Episode 2 after Fox executives enthusiastically green light a continuation of 90210 when Spelling and Garth pitch it to them. Any confusion in print isn’t a problem with the show itself, which is easy enough to grasp.

The original series lacked diversity and inclusion in times when there were few complainers. Fox’s reboot addresses this with both Green’s marriage to an African-American singing star and Carteris’ determination to doubly explore her sexuality as herself and as the rebooted Andrea Zuckerman.

There also are some unfortunate subplots, particularly the inclusion of a nameless young white male stalker whose obsession with Green in particular leads him to seriously creep out the rest of the cast. Filming on 90210 was completed shortly before the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, with disaffected, hate-filled young white males allegedly triggering the assault weapons. 90210 obviously didn’t intend in any way to be a reminder of these heinous actions. But alas, here we are.

The reboot also weaves in a blackmail plot involving Priestly and his wife, who has a “secret” tied to her sudden turn of events. 90210 certainly didn’t lack in serial drama soapiness, but the reboot tends to be thrown off its mark by these bad-nasty devices.

Otherwise the real revelation is Tori Spelling, who stands out among the ensemble as funny, free-spirited and even a bit poignant at times. If anyone carries this show through its first two episodes, she’s the one.

Carteris is also a standout in terms of vulnerabilities and feelings that weren’t allowed to be anywhere near fully expressed in the original 90210. And Priestly is vividly in this mix as a vainglorious approximation of his real self and a co-conspirator in the first episode’s rather daring hookup.

“Maybe going back is just what we all need to move forward,” Tori tells Jennie of her aggressive plans to make a reboot a reality.

That’s a grand simplification, but also more than a good enough rationale to make BH90210 TV’s latest born again entity. It’s been a dreary summer of mostly junky new broadcast network fare, led by CBS’ Love Island. There’s nothing technically new under the sun with BH90210. But it nonetheless feels that way via this fresh approach to what easily could have been a very wrong address.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net