In the fifth episode of HBO’s new comedy The Righteous Gemstones, there’s an extended shot of a salad buffet at Jason’s Steakhouse. It’s the kind of salad bar where you end up with mostly shredded cheddar and bacon bits on top of a few leaves of iceberg lettuce, where you can serve yourself scoopfuls of cottage cheese and pineapple straight from the can, and, once done, you return to the buffet for a well-done, corn-fed steak. It’s the kind of buffet that’ll bring up visceral memories of going to the “nice restaurant” in a town full of fast-food chains. And it’s integral to understanding the world of the Gemstones.
The Righteous Gemstones is a show about a family of Bakker-style televangelists living in South Carolina, and the conflicts between their Christian beliefs and deeply un-Christian behavior. Creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill, along with their team of writers, delve deep into the world of new-money evangelicals. The fourth episode is a flashback to the family in the 1980s, but in the modern day they’re still eating at Jason’s, albeit in a private room while wearing their flashier Sunday best. We spoke to executive producer and series writer John Carcieri about why the Gemstones wouldn’t stray from the salad buffet, and how their choices, culinary and not, have less to do with Christianity and everything to do with American capitalism. The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Eater: The Gemstones are rich enough that they could afford to eat anywhere. So, why have them keep returning to Jason’s Steakhouse?
John Carcieri: I think a big part of it is that, if you think about it, the Gemstones are kind of new money. Eli and Aimee-Leigh [played by John Goodman and Amy Nettles] built that empire in their lifetime. So we always imagined it as being what they saw as the nice steakhouse in town when they were first coming up, and they just continued to go there every week. And partially because they maybe don’t have the most sophisticated tastes, but also, because I think that it’s their way of maintaining that they’re just folks, and that they’re everyday normal people, and that they still are in touch with their roots. Which is also where they are in the business that they’re in, it’s like they’re very big fish in a small pond. I think they probably would feel a little bit uncomfortable around other people with as much money as they have. They would probably look at them as elite.
I think it’s kind of interesting to show that they have these country roots, and part of it is the populism of evangelical culture and all that stuff. And then part of it is that this is where they’re from and these are the type of people they’re comfortable around. And you know, Eli probably doesn’t like it when some fancy-pants chef won’t cook his steak well done.
Between the flashback episode and the present, we see how their relationship with the restaurant has changed. It used to be that they were in the main dining area with everyone else, and now they have a private room. What was the idea behind the transition?
We talked a lot about how church lunch is almost as much a part of Sunday church as the service itself. And part of it is showing just how much their empire has grown over the years; now they have their entourage and the people that they bring with them. They’ve kind of grown, not only as a family with new members, grandkids, all that, but they also have deacons and yes men, and people who work with them and are in their orbit that are part of their inner circle. And I like to imagine that that restaurant loves that the Gemstones go there every week, and despite how big and how rich the family gets, they’re going to be as accommodating as possible. And it’s gotten to a point where they’ve just reserved an upstairs area for these guys.
There’s a local chain in the Carolinas called TBonz, which is kind of how we were imagining what this would be. It’s not a bad place. It’s definitely better than a Sizzler or something like that. When we were kids that would be like, “Oh, that’s the nice place, we’re going to go and have a nice meal there.” You know? But to someone who has the resources of the Gemstones, it does feel a little bit like they’re slumming.
Aside from TBonz, are there any other restaurants and cuisines that you brought in to design Jason’s?
We just looked at a lot of chains. We definitely wanted it to be a chain-type place, so we wanted decorations all over the walls like you might see at a Friday’s or something like that. We wanted it to seem like a place where regular people in the community went. And they not only go there because they have for years, but they also go there because it’s a place to be seen. It’s almost like the Gemstones are giving back to the community by patronizing this place. Everyone’s kind of enamored by them and takes pictures, and they’re treated well there. We wanted it to be like the type of chain that you would find in a small South Carolina town that isn’t necessarily a high-class restaurant with a well-known chef or anything like that. But it’s kind of considered the fancier place in a town that’s probably filled with all chains and mini malls.
If you ever watched Vice Principals [also created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill], there’s actually another reference to Jason’s Steakhouse in the episode where a character gets a goodie bag at an event and it includes gift certificates to Jason’s Steakhouse. So I think it’s the kind of place that would have gift certificates.
I love that this is now, like, an established place in the Danny McBride extended universe.
That’s not the first time that Jody and Danny have done that sort of thing. Because even going back to The Foot Fist Way, Jody’s first film, Danny’s character always goes to this shitty seafood restaurant called Captain O’Landers. No one really noticed this but the most obsessed fans, but in Jody’s movie Observe and Report, one of the restaurants in the mall is Captain O’Landers.
One of the driving forces behind the Gemstones’ eating habits seems to be that they would see fancier, more upscale restaurants as elitist, or as something that they couldn’t relate to. But they have really ornate jewelry and designer clothing and private jets. Was there was any conversation about why those sort of wealthy trappings are okay, but a sushi restaurant isn’t?
I don’t want to call it class, because obviously it’s all very subjective. But I do think that they’re the type of people who aren’t going to deprive themselves of any comfort in terms of yeah, they can afford a jet, they’re going to buy a jet. But then at the same time, when you talk about food, I don’t think you could convince a guy like Eli that a steak at [New York institution] Peter Luger’s is any better than a steak that he would get at Jason’s. It’s kind of like how Trump eats at McDonalds, you know what I mean? That dude has crazy money, suits, he lives in Manhattan. But by eating McDonald’s, he relishes it almost as a way of saying that he’s a normal man, or he can somehow relate to the common man more. He’s somehow closer to his supposed roots as a blue-collar guy from Queens or whatever. I think that there’s something culturally there — foodie culture does just seem like the domain of coastal liberals. I know even in Charleston, we have a big foodie culture here. We have tons of spectacular restaurants. But other people in South Carolina look at Charleston as, “Oh, these guys are highfalutin. They’re elitist.”
You can imagine that the Gemstones would see Charleston as “the big city” where they’re not going to go.
Right. And obviously they’ve been exposed to travel and all that stuff. So they probably wouldn’t be intimidated by it in any way. But I do think that part of it is, deep down, they probably do think that they’re looked down on in certain ... settings. It’s populism. One of the guys at the local megachurch that we talked to said that when he set out to build his church, he basically approached it like a businessman. And he got out the phonebook and started calling random people all over town and asked them why they didn’t go to church. And he said that the most common answers were “I’m being judged when I go there,” “it’s boring,” and the third one is, “I don’t like to have to dress up.” So he made a church where you don’t have to dress up. It’s not boring. It’s like a rock show and you don’t feel like you’re being judged. All are welcome.
I picture the Gemstones like this too — they’re not necessarily moralists where they’re going to be talking about gay people or things like that, the way that some of these really conservative white people are. I think that they’re more populist in trying to get as big of a tent as possible, because that equals more money. Very American. And since it’s so American, it seems like they would gravitate toward the meat-and-potatoes type of food. It obviously wouldn’t be anything “ethnic.” I like the way it says something bigger about capitalism and America, without having to get on a soapbox and feel like you’re making a preachy show. It’s still a fun show and hopefully one that even religious people will like, because they see that just because the Gemstones are acting selfishly and can be hypocritical, it’s not necessarily because of their religious beliefs. We’re almost more condemning big business than religion.