You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to say that Danny McBride always plays the same character. My ex-boyfriend used to do a solid impression of a typical Danny McBride role because, well, he actually couldn’t stand them. It’s true that McBride – who became known for his memorable supporting turns in films like Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Hot Rod – tends to embody men who are cut from the same cloth. These men swear prodigiously, puff their chests, and swing their dicks around. They believe that women owe them sex, strangers owe them respect, and the world owes them everything else. Not because they are remotely impressive or even competent, but because they all share the same vision of how a man acts when he’s a big deal. McBride’s first on-screen role was in his frequent collaborator David Gordon Green’s 2003 indie drama All the Real Girls, and while it was a far demurrer debut of what would come to be the recognizable McBride persona, his character was literally named “Bust-Ass.”
McBride is rarely a leading man, but he’s always a scene-stealer. Since his debut in All the Real Girls, he’s been a pyromaniac explosives expert, an egomaniac Taekwondo instructor, a hotheaded drug supplier, an oafish royal heir, and a guy who drinks green tea all goddamn day. And he’s also portrayed himself — or rather, a version of himself which amplifies the worst qualities McBride is so good at bringing to life. One that, subsequently, all of his friends secretly hate (in This is the End). This is because McBride characters are pig-headed, aggro, misogynistic, arrogant, narcissistic, and prejudiced. Sometimes they are all of these features at once, sometimes only a couple, among other things. These men don’t just demand your attention, they need it to survive. They step into a room and deprive it of oxygen. McBride’s characters always have something to prove because, crucially, they always have something to hide. More often than not, the men that McBride portrays are not only the comic relief, but the butt of the joke. Their personas are a costume — self-loathing beta males masquerading as alphas. Snake oil salesmen trying to sell the world themselves. They are men born and bred in the United States of America.
McBride has made a career out of satirizing American male chauvinism. He highlights the absolute worst features and consequences of Western masculinity, pervasive in McBride’s native South (consistently the locale of his TV series) but not unique to it. The same kind of patriarchal toxicity that can be found anywhere in America, and is distinct to America. This is nowhere better apparent than in McBride’s three TV collaborations with directors Green and Jody Hill (the latter of whom has taken the actor in as something of a muse, since McBride starred as incompetent Taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons in Hill’s feature debut, The Foot Fist Way): Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals, and, most recently, The Righteous Gemstones. It’s a triptych of work that McBride himself has referred to as “the evolution of the misunderstood, angry man”: stories centered on white, entitled, vitriolic losers who think they should be winners. Denied the easy success and acclaim they believe is rightfully theirs, they lash out in increasingly violent, distressing ways. Because with each series, though all three are decidedly bleak, the tone of the show itself and what this particular character is capable of has turned darker, with Gemstones landing comfortably in the genre of black comedy.
They are men born and bred in the United States of America.
Aside from Gemstones, each series chronicles a man (or men, in the case of Vice Principals) who is down and out and desperately struggling to reestablish himself a place of respect. In Eastbound & Down, this takes the form of McBride’s Kenny Powers: a former baseball star whose caustic personality and self-destructive behavior lead to his professional and personal implosion. Over the course of four seasons, the narrative follows Powers’s tumultuous journey towards recapturing his fame and glory, winning the woman of his dreams, and righting his wrongs — none of which he truly accomplishes or earns. In Vice Principals, McBride is divorced, cucked father and aspiring principal Neal Gamby, one of the two titular vice principals alongside Walton Goggins’s Lee Russell. The pair of unfulfilled men form a reluctant union of bigotry and rancor towards the Black woman who they believe stole their chance at taking over North Jackson High, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregor). Neal Gamby is slightly less repugnant than Kenny Powers, especially as the series moves forward and uncovers the conscience hidden underneath the callousness (Lee Russell remains largely sociopathic). But the acts of cruelty and viciousness are far more hurtful and even disturbing in Vice Principals, which complements the cutthroat absurdity of the series’ crux.
While in his film work McBride characters are generally meant to function solely as comic relief — caricatures of white male ignorance, someone at whom we may point and laugh — these HBO series put the McBride character in the drivers’ seat. McBride is always transparently playing an anti-hero, but he’s nevertheless someone with whom we are meant to identify and have empathy for. This creates a delicate tightrope that the McBride/Green/Hill trio have become infamous for walking. Critics took Vice Principals to task when it first aired, taking it as face value and haranguing it for its politically incorrect nature, the way it frequently toes numerous, tricky lines of derogatory humor and mean-spiritedness. And it’s true that McBride and co. force their audience into a consistently uncomfortable position, one where we’re meant to find compassion for characters who not only do not especially deserve our compassion, but who seem to do everything in their power to actively try and squander any potential good faith.
But the remarkable thing about McBride’s work — what differentiates it from comedy that is just offensive for the sake of it — is that his shows are incredibly smart. They are emotionally intelligent and empathetic. His repressed, insecure, antagonistic monsters are created out of a society that encourages repression, insecurity, and antagonism, but the viewer is always reminded that this behavior has real consequences for everyone around them. The effects of these horrible characters’ privileged carelessness on other people and, perhaps most importantly, on the person who wields it, is made disquietingly real. Neal Gamby’s doomed, damaging path towards becoming school principal strains the already tenuous relationship with his family, makes him an object of mockery among his colleagues and romantic interest, Ms. Snodgrass (Georgia King), and even gets him shot. Kenny Powers regularly self-sabotages in his desperate quest for reinvigorated fame due to his perpetually unavoidable arrogance. And most of the time, characters who are on the receiving end of the angry, ignorant man’s wrath, like Belinda Brown and her desolated house, or BJ Barnes (Tim Baltz) and his consistent taunts of emasculation, or literally everything that happens to poor middle school teacher Stevie Janowski (Steve Little) over the course of Eastbound & Down, are treated with consideration. These characters are fleshed out with problems, desires, and likable qualities. They’re given an arc, and we are meant to recognize them as wholly realized human beings. They aren’t necessarily punchlines, but rather casualties created on one man’s self-obsessed war against the world.
With both Vice Principals and Eastbound & Down, the scorned, emasculated white man, even when at his lowest, is shown as still being capable of immense violence. It’s violence that’s wielded openly, often thoughtlessly. But above all, it is exceedingly dangerous. The two series feel, perhaps, even darker now in 2022, as a certain subsect of angry white man feels increasingly comfortable utilizing his perceived relegation in modern society as an excuse to forcibly take back what he believes he is rightfully owed. Thus, what sets The Righteous Gemstones apart is that the malicious, prejudiced McBride character is already on top. The Righteous Gemstones centers on the titular televangelist industrial complex of the Gemstone family, made up of bratty adult offspring Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine), and led by patriarch Eli (John Goodman). Naturally, the Gemstones don’t practice what they preach, with the narrative following the family’s less-than-devout off-screen deeds and internal corruption. The Gemstone brand is less a brand than an international, money-sucking movement, one which has dug its fangs into American culture and only wants to exploit it for everything it possibly can.
In The Righteous Gemstones, Jesse Gemstone and his ilk were born on top, and they never left. This is possibly what, among numerous other narrative and tonal features, makes Gemstones the darkest of McBride’s three series. Though McBride’s Jesse is not the series’ lead in this case (rather, one of a handful of co-leads among an ensemble cast), the series considers the question of what if the misunderstood, angry man actually had all the power he thought he deserved? Of course, the Gemstones are beset by self-destructive familial conflict, including but not limited to Jesse Gemstone’s insecurity complex that he deals with by forming a hilarious brigade of emasculated house husbands, or Kelvin’s simmering homosexuality that manifests as an obsession with physical fitness and a retinue of jacked men; or Judy’s unpleasantly masculine personality formed as a defense mechanism against a lack of respect from her male family members, in the absence of their deceased mother.
But Jesse Gemstone and his family are both the apotheosis and the darkest version of the Misunderstood Angry Man trilogy, and the natural progression and refinement of McBride’s artistic fascination with this particular archetype. The Gemstones represent the most disgusting, gluttonous excess that America freely offers those who least deserve it, who can attain it simply by being born, and who will do anything to hang on to it. You could say that McBride’s career has been leading up to this moment, finally playing a character who truly exists at the top of the heap. Because, well, the most pernicious, privileged losers do have a habit of getting there.
Brianna Zigler is a film and entertainment writer whose work has appeared at Paste Magazine, Consequence, Polygon,The Playlist, and elsewhere.