HBO is tackling TV evangelism in its juicy new comedy The Righteous Gemstones, which follows a family whose work to bring others to Christ is darkened by greed and dysfunction. John Goodman stars as Eli Gemstone, the patriarch of the family whose impassioned speeches have led to a lot of followers and even more money. And while Eli Gemstone isn't based on real person, there are some real evangelists caught up in scandal that the character could have been inspired by.
The Gemstones are somewhat reminiscent of the infamous Bakker family, who were often seen on Christian shows like The 700 Club and The PTL Club throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, per ABC News. The family patriarch, James "Jim" Bakker, and his then-wife Tammy Faye (who was famous for her makeup and up-dos) were known for spreading prosperity gospel, and for the lavish lifestyle they maintained outside of the church, including multiple houses, expensive cars, a multi-million dollar TV network, and their own Christian theme park.
However, in the late '80s, a series of scandals led to the downfall of their then-booming dynasty. As ABC reported, Jim was accused in 1987 of sexually assaulting a former employee; he acknowledged their sexual encounter, but claimed it was consensual. Then one year later, in 1988, he was indicted on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy. After a drama-filled trial, he was sentenced to 45 years in prison, but was ultimately paroled in 1994 after serving only five. After getting out of prison Jim returned to televangelism, but has since embraced apocalypticism. In 2013, he wrote the book Time Has Come: How to Prepare Now for Epic Events Ahead. As for Tammy Faye, she divorced Jim in 1992; in 2007, she died.
The team behind The Righteous Gemstones haven't directly cited the Bakker family as inspiration for the show, but multiple reviewers have noted the similarities. The trailer for the series shows Eli praying with his family about their upcoming service, which he says will be "the most watched daytime service of the year" with more than 6 million viewers. Inside the arena, a collection plate is passed around, and Eli is later greeted at a sprawling home with dozens of housekeepers, a room filled with cash, and three private planes aptly named The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. When a passerby confronts him about his ministry being set up only to serve his family, he replies that he's not ashamed.
All seems to be well until "dark, evil' forces (aka some dudes in black hoodies and devil masks) show up to take the family down, and they gather their guns and concoct a plan in order to stand their ground. "You think messing with a man of the lord is easing pickings? I refuse to be blackmailed," Jesse Gemstone (Danny McBride) proclaims. Comedic moments shine throughout the trailer, but it's clear the show is parodying some of the controversy that has surrounded real televangelists. So while Eli — and the show as a whole — aren't based on real events or people, they've certainly taken inspiration from them.