Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s HBO shows have ultimately always been about one thing: the South. Not the cartoon so many people reduce it to, or the near-mystic oddity found in works inspired by classic Southern lit, but the real South, the mundane, everyday, unspectacular but still special place that McBride and Hill both grew up in. You can see it in Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, but that Southern backdrop is most crucial to their current show, The Righteous Gemstones, whose second season has just started on HBO. Washed-up ballplayers can live anywhere, and overly ambitious middle school administrators are striving in every town in America, but the world of televangelism is uniquely Southern. And even though megachurches can be found throughout the country, they’re most deeply entrenched in the South, along with the current evangelical culture surrounding them. In a career defined by the South, The Righteous Gemstones is the most Southern thing McBride has done yet.
That was clear from the start of the first season, but season 2 quickly expands its Bible Belt purview by focusing on two parts of Southern culture that should be entirely separate from the church but run sort of parallel to televangelism. In season 2’s premiere episode, we get our first extended glimpse at the early life of Eli Gemstone [John Goodman], the family patriarch who established the Gemstones’ Evangelical empire. The twentysomething Eli of the late ‘60s might’ve been a Christian, but he wasn’t yet a Man of God, even one as dubious as he would eventually become. Before finding his crooked way to the church, Eli was a prelim pro wrestler in Memphis and a thug and enforcer for the local outpost of the Dixie Mafia. And although crime and wrestling are two more things that are in no way unique to the South, they both have a particular history and influence in the region that aren’t quite the same as any other part of the country.
When asked about the wrestling connection, McBride acknowledges that it was something he wanted to touch on before the show even started. “It was always a concept that I had flirted with that I thought was part of [Eli’s] story,” he tells Paste. “I feel like the union of Aimee Leigh [the Gemstone matriarch, who’s played by Jennifer Nettles in flashbacks] and Eli, Eli comes from kind of a more rough and tumble background. Didn’t have a lot of resources and had to do what he had to do to get by. And Aimee Leigh came from an area where she was a child star, and she had things that Eli didn’t, and it was the union of those two backgrounds that created this world. So we always had an idea that Eli in his past was kind of a gangster. And that’s how he runs his operation, too.”
McBride and Hill grew up in North Carolina in the 1980s, when it was home to one of the biggest and most successful wrestling promotions of the era. Based in Charlotte, Jim Crockett Promotions ran shows throughout the Mid-Atlantic, from Virginia down to Georgia and all throughout the Carolinas, with weekly TV filmed in Atlanta and beamed across the nation on Turner Broadcasting System. Mid-Atlantic was the last major territory standing after Vince McMahon’s WWF broke the decades-long arrangement between regional wrestling promoters and went national in the mid ‘80s, and the home territory for one of the biggest and most iconic wrestlers of all time, Ric Flair. (Flair, of course, was the obvious inspiration for Will Ferrell’s Eastbound character.) It was a seedier, grimier, more violent alternative to the WWF and its cartoonish stars like Hulk Hogan, with faster and more action-packed matches supplemented by copious amounts of blood and brawling. It persisted on Turner’s networks for over a decade after Crockett got out of the business, eventually becoming known as World Championship Wrestling, and although it became slicker and more TV-friendly in the ‘90s, it still had a distinctive Southerness to it that set it apart from the WWF.
That’s not necessarily the wrestling McBride is fascinated by today, though. 600 miles from Charlotte an even bloodier and more sordid version of pro wrestling had taken root in Memphis, becoming a central part of the local culture and a legendary story in the history of wrestling. Wrestling in Memphis, whether it was being promoted by Nick Gulas and Roy Welch in the ‘60s and ‘70s or Jerry Jarrett in the ‘70s and ‘80s, evolved into its own specific strand of the sport, with its own style that combined violent realism with patently absurd characters and stories, and a list of local superstars who were legends in Memphis but never made it in any other promotion. (The biggest exception to that was Jerry Lawler, who became an international star in the ‘90s after becoming an announcer and occasional wrestler for the WWF; he had been the biggest star in Memphis for over two decades at that point, and one of the most famous and popular men in the city.) Despite being a mid-sized city at best, Memphis wrestling had some of the highest TV ratings and live event attendance in the country for many years. The world of wrestling is inherently sordid, founded on separating “marks” from their money, but Memphis was an especially seedy, sleazy outpost. It’s that thin line between wrestling and crime, and reality and lies, that really interests McBride.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that era of wrestling, Memphis in particular,” McBride says. “I always thought it was such a cool time period. Just all these characters being born and how that evolved into what modern wrestling is. So it’s always been an area I’ve wanted to set a story in, and it just so happened that it kind of fit into what we wanted to do here.” He also points out the similarity in skillsets between a good televangelist and a good wrestler—“this showmanship,” as McBride calls it. He quotes a character from The Righteous Gemstones, Eric Roberts’ wrestling promoter and small-time crime lord Junior, to sum up the main goal of both a wrestling promoter and a televangelist: “You never want to break kayfabe.”
In Gemstones, McBride merges his interest in Memphis wrestling with his long-stated obsession with the so-called Dixie Mafia, the loose organization of Southern gangs that McBride often called an influence on The Righteous Gemstones while promoting its first season. This is another uniquely Southern story, as small-time thugs in towns like Biloxi, Miss.; Winder, Ga.; and Phenix City, Al., formed a regional criminal powerhouse based not on their common immigrant status but as a result of the desperation and poverty found throughout so much of the South. This network of brazen and extremely violent criminals stretched throughout the Southeast in the second half of the 20th century, and serves as a more blatant reflection of the deceit and contempt found at the heart of pro wrestling and televangelism. Together all three are like funhouse mirror versions of each other, the wrestler, criminal, and televangelist as three different faces on the same basic swindle. Con men and thugs, the lot of ‘em, with only the amount of violence and explicit lawbreaking they’re willing to resort to separating them.
Arrogance, ambition, and a contempt for their audience (or victims) drove all three fields at the time when Eli broke into them. As McBride notes, men reaching beyond their means in often shameful and ugly ways has been a common theme for his shows, and for Gemstones, that means a preacher more interested in promoting himself than his god. “That particular type of person, I find, is fascinating, the idea of a pastor who sees themself as a rock star,” he says. “Like a pastor that sees themself as bigger than the message they’re trying to sell. It seems like such a contradiction to what the basic principles of what they’re spouting are.
“A lot of the shows that I’ve dealt with before, Eastbound or Vice Principals, that’s very much in line with the type of characters we’ve explored, these characters who have an inflated sense of self. To me, the idea of a minister that sees themself as bigger than God just feels like the ultimate display of that.”
Anybody who’s driven through the South has seen the billboards and megachurches that celebrate that kind of minister. Anybody who’s watched old Southern wrestling or caught a local show put on by old-timers at a small town VFW or middle school gym has seen how little space separates a great pro wrestler from a televangelist. And anybody who’s read about the Dixie Mafia and the history of semi-organized crime in the South knows how the same avaricious spirit drives all three endeavors. As a Southerner McBride knows all of this, and that’s what makes Eli Gemstone’s life—and The Righteous Gemstones as a whole—such a strongly realized, distinctly Southern story.
The Righteous Gemstones airs on HBO and HBO Max on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.