Season One, Episode One — “First Episode”
By Courtney Ryan. There’s a new pope in town, folks, and this one is young enough to love Cherry Coke Zero. Despite its premise involving a 47-year-old American guy named Lenny Belardo becoming a badass pontiff, Italian writer and director Paolo Sorrentino wants us to take The Young Pope seriously. That’s not to say there aren’t jokes here—there are—but what’s really outlandish isn’t part of the humor. As Lenny (played by a bullish Jude Law) says, “Jokes are never telling. They’re jokes.”
HBO’s latest 10-episode series is as surreal and ridiculous as the recent American election. A swaggering New Yorker with no business calling shots in the Vatican is unexpectedly elected to the papacy because kingmaker Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) believes that through Lenny he has found a “telegenic puppet” he can manipulate. As we all can imagine, things don’t go exactly as planned and Lenny, opting to become Pius XIII, is unwilling to play the pawn. Instead, his wish is to remove the papacy from public view and turn a stern cheek to casual believers. He blackmails his cardinals and appoints the nun who raised him, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), as his special assistant. Also, he might not believe in God. But apparently that’s just a joke.
Under the lucid direction of Sorrentino (Youth, The Great Beauty), The Young Pope is House of Cards meets Last Year at Marienbad. In the opening sequence, Lenny emerges from beneath a grotesque pile of babies and drifts through a fever dream that finally sets him above throngs of Catholics at Saint Peter’s Square where he parts the storm clouds and boldly declares, “We have forgotten to masturbate!” And then he wakes up.
Sorrentino maintains the dreamlike pacing throughout, sometimes to an infuriating degree. He often lingers so long on his characters after they’ve delivered deadpan quips that any air of humor has slowly drained from the scene before moving on. Certain points of exposition are comically bad, as when Sister Mary helpfully tells the Pope that there are a lot of Catholics looking to him for guidance now. Well, shoot. And Law, though certainly watchable, still stumbles slightly when trying to find ground between playing a wry anti-hero or a cheeky villain.
Still, the show is a vision. Sorrentino embraces every architectural, ornamental, and ritualistic piece of Catholicism with stylish abandon. He captures his favorite subjects in dramatic color while pushing others out of frame into spectacularly stark shadows. This being an HBO series, he also lingers over Law’s tush not once, but twice, in the first few minutes (perhaps this is how we know the pope is truly young?) and we’re treated early to a surrealist vision of a young, be-tittied woman in the grass, presumably because a set of naked breasts must appear in every HBO episode.
After so many memes regarding The Young Pope pranced around social media the last few weeks it was easy to anticipate the series as either so bad it’s good or so bad it’s unwatchable. So far, the show seems to be neither. The inaugural episode is slow and silly, but with Sorrentino and Law white knuckling this show as tightly as they can, they really might pull off a compelling series that’s more than just style.
“There’s a new pope now.” — The Young Pope.
Pius XIII: “From now on, you’re going to be living at the exact center of the Church.” Sister Mary: “But I don’t understand. What does that mean?” Pius: “That means that just now, the center of the Church took a few steps back.”
BEST MOMENT: While talking to his priest, the young pope points to the Big Dipper and says that it’s God’s duplex and that it has a private swimming pool. Apparently the priest doesn’t know any better because it’s not hard to get a priest job in Vatican City.
EPISODE’S MVP: The young pope, naturally. Law is clearly enjoying this chance to portray a polarizing anti-hero. He’s faltering a bit with the comedic timing, but his sincerity is there.
– It was difficult to find Pius XIII’s opening homily shocking at all since the entire premise of a young (and American) pope throws all tradition out the window already. Why wouldn’t he advocate masturbation?
– It feels like we’re headed for some Holy Father-sized mommy issues. Sister Mary is probably more than an adoptive caregiver and she clearly has a ton of sway over this man who just took control of one of the world’s largest religions.
– Lenny’s choice of Pius XIII is interesting. Pope Pius XII was the WWII pope whose legacy is still controversial. He’s sometimes celebrated for standing up to Nazi Germany and saving Jewish people, but there are also claims that he pushed an anti-Semitic message.
6 out of 10
Next: “Second Episode”, soon.