'The Righteous Gemstones' Is Very Smart about Dense Characters

'The Righteous Gemstones'Credit: HBO
Perhaps one of the most underrated shows on TV right now understands fools completely. 

One of the hardest things to write is an ignorant character.

Humans are complex, and we have to understand character choices and motivations. And, sneakily, we want to see a small part of ourselves in them. But no one wants to think they're an ignorant person.

Dense or ignorant characters can be confusing and annoying and alienate the audience when written poorly. But that's why there's a real miracle happening in front of us—The Righteous Gemstones is a show about many dense characters, and somehow it's so funny, poignant, and relatable that it threads the needle. 

Today I want to look at what makes Gemstones tick and pick apart how they craft characters in such a specific way that their intelligence doesn't matter because their actions speak louder than their words. 

Let's jump in together. 

How The Righteous Gemstones Is Very Smart about Dense Characters 

There are many famous dense characters across cinematic history: Ernest, Michael Scott, every Coen protagonist from like 1987 to 2000, and many more. The things they all have in common are that they're written well, that they have crystal-clear motivations, and that we understand why they make their bizarre choices. This conflagration of outrageous behavior is what makes The Righteous Gemstones so entertaining in the current space. 

The story follows three siblings as they work to take over their father's megachurch. The siblings are played by Danny McBride, Edi Patterson, and Adam Devine. Their collective IQ is probably around 200, but that's also what makes their characters so interesting. They're not smart people, but they think they are. This delusion allows them to plot, scheme, and make moves that continue to shock the audience.

We uncover layers about the characters we never saw, like their sexuality, deep parental issues, and extreme greed. They come to the surface through us reading the characters. They never say these things out loud, but we get to watch and pick up on subtext they think they're hiding. And unlike a drama, which might make you roll your eyes at these melodramatic reveals, in a comedy, you're laughing uproariously. 

These issues are things we see in shows like Succession, but in this 30-minute comedy, they're more fun. These characters are unpredictable, but when they choose to act, it all makes sense. The characters are so clearly drawn through their flaws and lack of capabilities that, of course, they would do something wild. It's like having their ids walking around bouncing off one another.

Comedy is the unexpected happening, and in a show where you can't predict where the story will go next, the comedy is ever-present. 

When you set out to write a dense character, remember that their actions have to make sense. You need to build a world that pushes them, you need to give them desires that drive them, and even if you rob them of intelligence, you need to have them do things we understand. That way, even if we don't see ourselves in the person, or even like them, we'll be interested in where the story will go from there. 

Let me know what you think in the comments.      

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Thanks a lot for such an informative post!

February 4, 2022 at 7:41AM

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