When you think of extravagant thrones on television, you probably think of HBO. The Righteous Gemstones hopes to keep it that way.
Danny McBride’s ostentatious drama about a uniquely American empire and the failchildren set to inherit it is the funnier, more popular version of Succession. Perhaps the best example of the series’ willingness to go all the way with its outlandish premises and set designs is the throne room from its recently wrapped, excellent third season, where the three newly anointed church leaders hold court on a variety of issues.
The Gemstones’ throne room is not dissimilar to what we’ve seen on HBO in Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, whether it’s the lavish stage of King’s Landing or the more stripped-down version in Winterfell: The leaders listen to problems brought forth and decide what to do about them. But in classic Gemstones fashion, what separates this throne room from the rest is simply how ridiculous it is. Instead of an invading army or a peasant rebellion, they’re listening to pitches on Bible-themed game shows, or figuring out new and exciting ways to enunciate “daddy,” or doing damage control over a high-profile affair (OK, that one does sound familiar). And instead of the ornate decorations of Westeros, the Gemstones throne room combines its subjects’ massive wealth and lack of any self-awareness to perfect, gaudy effect.
Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO
In their throne room, the Gemstone children sit atop three fluffy purple chairs, raised on an elevated purple platform (Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin all agree they would like to look down on the people who come to them). There’s a huge compass in the middle of the floor, an illuminated world map on a wall, and small statues of doves hanging off the chandelier.
But the real star of the show is right behind them: Gigantic statues of the three siblings, styled like religious iconography, loom over the proceedings. On the left, angelic Judy, with a dove just above her head. On the right, innocent Kelvin, holding a sleeping baby in his arm. In the middle, strong Jesse, wearing a suit of armor, holding a shield with a lion’s head on it, and sporting big wings that stretch out into the other statues.
The Gemstones faithful have the team of production designer Richard A. Wright to thank for that. Like many of the show’s cast and crew, Wright went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with McBride and Gemstones executive producer David Gordon Green. It’s been a tight-knit group ever since then, working on Green and McBride’s film and television ventures together (on a Zoom call with Polygon, Wright estimates there are “probably 20 or so people” from UNCSA working on Gemstones).
Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO
The original script just said “Gemstones conference room,” Wright shares, but McBride wanted something more special because of how much time the third season spends there.
“We have fun making paintings of people,” Wright says, referencing past work on Gemstones and Vice Principals. “But we’d already done those giant photos of Judy and BJ at his baptism, and so we were trying to come up with something different.”
That’s when McBride suggested giant statues, and Wright’s team went to work. First, they rendered virtual versions in Photoshop. Then, they created a 3D environment of the throne room to place the statues in, and scanned the actor’s heads to make the statues look more like their subjects. The final step was making it real: Cutting the statues out of stacks of rigid styrofoam, gluing them together, and covering them in paint. The end result was three glorious creations, each at about 16 feet tall and 2 feet deep.
In classic Gemstones fashion, it’s not just a silly bit. Well, sure, it’s extremely silly, but the statues also smartly play into the Gemstones’ role as the new monarchs of their world, the kings and queens of their own private fiefdom. In the third season, the Gemstone children have recently inherited this throne, but because they aren’t as inspiring as their father and don’t seem to care much for their congregation, they’re already battling attempts to topple them from their positions. Their hubris has been laying the foundation for their downfall, as sins old and new come to light and threaten to (literally) blow everything up. These statues are as clear of a representation of this as possible — all while being a laugh-out-loud riot.
They also show how the Gemstones see themselves as the primary figures in their faith, even more so than those they purport to worship. No show is better positioned to be simultaneously ludicrously silly and sharply incisive. Gemstones’ ability to say something trenchant about the state of America while in the middle of the most ridiculous situation you’ve seen all week is what makes it one of the best shows on the air.
Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO
The statues weren’t the only massive project representing over-the-top evangelical excess this season: The Redeemer, a massive monster truck owned by Danny McBride’s character Jesse since childhood, was built specifically for the show by The Metal Shop, an auto shop in Delaware featured in the Max special Metal Monsters: The Righteous Redeemer. Multiple versions of the truck were built for the show (only one actually drives), and a prop of that size posed a “giant challenge,” Wright says, but one that had its own unique rewards.
“Every time it started up and started crashing stuff, I mean, [it was] so much fun,” Wright says. “So much joy. The entire set, you know, the 100 people working there, everyone’s sneaking videos and, like, high-fiving.”
The coup de grâce came from the Gemstones special effects team, who built the fire-breathing apparatus that sits on top of the Redeemer.
“When you see that thing flying through the air shooting fire out, it’s just a universal joy, even for people who think they don’t like, you know, gas-guzzling machines,” Wright says. “When you see that happen, it’ll change something in you.”