I have a pretty well-founded suspicion that Netflix has a whole department whose job is to invent cults. There’s no other rational explanation for the fact that every weekend I find a new documentary there – and immediately after it also a film or a series based on the same story. They all tell the tale of a cult/group/organization/forum/religious stream/home circle and their sensational, true, mind-boggling history. If we’re to believe what we see repeatedly on the screen, only a negligible minority of humanity was never a member of a cult of some kind at some point in time. As of this moment, the latest documentary miniseries in the unending chain is “The Family,” directed by Jesse Moss (whose 2014 series “The Overnighters,” was Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary). The new series is about a fanatic Christian organization called the Family, or the Fellowship – depends who you ask – which has succeeded in striking firm roots in the U.S. administration.
To Israeli viewers this might sound fairly trivial. After all, in these parts – with the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, the ultranationalist Ateret Cohanim, the disproportionate budgeting of the settlements at the expense of the geographic periphery, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and the lack of separation between religion and state – that Gordian knot is an integral element of everyday life. In the United States, by contrast, this highly consequential connection stirs great interest. “The Family,” which exposes precisely, elaborately and authoritatively the substantial influence that the extremist organization wields over decision makers, opened a can of worms for the public.
Which is also a bit surprising, because “The Family” is not a good series. True, it’s based on a thorough investigation, inspired by Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” as well as by jolting interviews with senior figures of the organization – one of whom wanted to conduct a joint prayer before the question period – and it has a coherent narrative that ties up all the loose ends.
The problem is that one of the chief techniques Moss uses is dramatically reconstructed scenes, an inferior technique in documentaries. Despite the artistic justification that helps fill in the gaps when no other aesthetic solution is available, these scenes are grating and interrupt the flow. Of course, it’s hardly my job to tell Moss how to do his job, but in my opinion it would be better to use narration, talking heads, stills and press clippings (old-fashioned, I know, but preferable to the reconstructions that feel like flashbacks of “Crimewatch”).
If you value your time and still want some money-power-Christianity on the screen to round off the day, instead of “The Family” you’ll be better off with “The Righteous Gemstones,” Danny McBride’s new series on HBO (in Israel on Hot and Cellcom TV). This is the third series McBride has created (and the first without his regular collaborator, Jody Hill) for the leading cable network in the United States. McBride’s eccentric behavior, which gained fame thanks mainly to his heroic appearances in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s “Pineapple Express” and “This Is the End,” is not a ratings grabber. His two previous series – “Eastbound & Down,” about a hedonistic, unmannered baseball star in decline, and “Vice Principals,” which for two seasons followed the hierarchy battles in the teachers’ room of a high school in the American South – have gained him a limited but fanatic following.
In “The Righteous Gemstones,” HBO not only allows McBride to play his shtick, it also raises the ante in the form of lavish budgeting. This is reflected, above all, by the ensemble of actors that surround McBride – he, as always, takes upon himself the role of the obnoxious hero you can’t help falling in love with. The difference is that this time he is not the primary focus. If “Eastbound and Down” was an almost solo act, and “Vice Principals” was a comic dialogue between him and Walton Goggins (“The Hateful Eight,” “The Shield”), this time he displays his ensemble acting ability.
Apart from him, there’s John Goodman, Adam DeVine (“Pitch Perfect,” “Modern Family”), Cassidy Freemen (“Smallville”), Dermot Mulroney (who is not Dylan McDermott), Skyler Gisondo (“Santa Clarita Diet,” “Booksmart” and the current bet to become the new Michael Cera), in addition to Goggins and Edi Patterson, who starred in “Vice Principals.”
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McBride, for his part, meets the network’s expectations and justifies the investment with his most perfect, mature and satiric series. (Everything’s relative, yes? The number of male sexual organs seen here challenges those of “Euphoria”). He does not become more moderate, but embeds the humor that characterizes his work within the classic framework of a family comedy and creates magnificent alienation.
Dollars, power and sex
As you can probably guess, “The Righteous Gemstones” is about a dysfunctional family of bigtime evangelical preachers from South Carolina, a state with which McBride is familiar – he grew up there and returned to it after 20 years in Los Angeles, only to discover that the church still controls it with a high hand. Moreover, upon going back, McBride noticed that huge brand-name churches have taken over abandoned malls and commercial centers, and established in their place kitschy versions of Roman temples. The Gemstones, for their part, live in luxurious mansions, fly in private planes, drive fancy cars and conduct a bombastic-swinish-patriarchal way of life that has nothing to do with God-fearing ways.
For the Gemstones, faith equals dollars, power and sex. (As Tyrion Lannister said in “Game of Thrones,” everything is about sex, except sex – it’s about power.) The only authority in the family is Eli, the father (Goodman). His failed sons (McBride and DeVine) and his daughter, who loves him (Patterson, who, if there is justice in the world, will start to gain recognition), look up to him but also aspire to succeed him – turns out that “King Lear” still rules the roost – but lack the vision, the wisdom, the charisma and the resources to do it.
The series starts with the Gemstones bent on executing religious gentrification and seizing control of a new area in the state, to the pronounced displeasure of the local priest, triggering a struggle that becomes the main plotline. At the same time, an incriminating video clip of a cocaine-based orgy, which could go viral, threatens to sully the family’s reputation and endanger their economic projects. There’s no one better than McBride – who, according to Kanye West, should be the one to play him in a movie about his life – to dramatize the moral corruption of contemporary religion. His humor, a kind of impossible combination of grotesquerie and understatement, is exactly what the messianic cynicism and the hypocrisy of the evangelistic movement deserve. It’s not impossible that it will work superbly in Hebrew, too.