For the better part of the last few weeks, TV fans have been waiting with bated breath for The Young Pope, taking to Twitter to debate what HBO’s latest prestige drama might have to say about the current state of the Catholic Church, or religion’s place in the modern world.
OK, not really. We’ve mostly just been cracking snarky jokes and making up song lyrics off the goofy title. “Forever Young Pope,” that sort of thing.
Never forget Obama's reaction to the Young Pope. pic.twitter.com/1yDQcAG39w
— Alanna Bennett (@AlannaBennett) January 11, 2017
oh i just found out the young pope is a real show, i thought all of you were making it up
— BAKOON (@BAKKOOONN) January 5, 2017
But then the show finally delivered its two-night premiere and, well, goddamn. We were not prepared for it to be this good.
It’s easy to see why the show became an instant meme before anyone on this side of the Atlantic had seen so much as a single episode (an Italian co-production, The Young Pope is already a massive hit in Europe). “What if the Pope… were young?” simply became the new “What if Seinfeld were still on TV?” In either case, someone was definitely getting an iPhone.
But anyone expecting to see Jude Law’s titular young pope introduced skateboarding through St. Peter’s Basilica must’ve been pretty shocked to see him instead crawl out of a pile of hopefully-just-sleeping babies in a bizarre, batshit dream sequence involving glowing water coolers, fainting cardinals and a homily about the benefits of masturbation. And that opening scene was just a sign of things to come — over the course of a mere two episodes, we’ve already got a kangaroo roaming the Vatican grounds, Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary and her impressive t-shirt game, nuns playing soccer, the pontiff comparing himself to Daft Punk and throwing a tantrum over Cherry Coke Zero. Apparently, there’s even a papal fashion montage set to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” coming up, which is pretty much the GOAT spoiler alert imaginable.
In other words, The Young Pope is funny, and it knows it. Anyone who’s seen creator/writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty knows the Italian filmmaker has a healthy taste for absurdity, which, like most Italian filmmakers, usually involves taking the piss out of the pomp and circumstance of the Church. But if The Young Pope were simply 10 episodes’ worth of gags about Law’s brash American pope smoking more than the Sistine Chapel chimney and accidentally coming face-to-face with tour groups, it wouldn’t be much to write home about.
What sets Sorrentino’s show apart so far is how genuinely cinematic it is — and not just in the buzzword-y way every showrunner and/or actor these days professes to be making “a 10-hour movie,” a claim that gets less meaningful with every subsequent soundbite. In the case of The Young Pope though, each frame is lit and composed in a way that makes it worthy of pouring over. And not just so you can catch stray “clues” you might’ve missed so you can puzzle out the plot before anyone else on Reddit. (Ahem, Westworld.)
And, of course, like 99.9% of modern TV dramas, The Young Pope is ultimately a show about powerful men behaving badly. Vindictive, unpredictable, borderline sociopathic. Lots of adjectives seem to fit Law’s Pope Pius XIII; young is by far the least interesting among them. And these first two episodes firmly establish the pontiff formerly known as Lenny Belardo as the next in a proud line of HBO anti-heroes, with a lineage you can trace all the way back to Tony Soprano. (He may not throw a kid out a window, but he does make an elderly nun cry.) The neophyte pontiff is literally holding the assembled cardinals hostage as he delays giving his first homily in the two-part premiere. And when finally delivered, his inaugural speech is far from a progressive proclamation of God’s love. Instead, it’s bombastic and confrontational, filled with menace and Old Testament wrath. Call it Breaking Bad Pope.
The absurdist sense of humour, the artful cinematography, the compelling anti-hero, it all makes for the holy trinity of prestige TV. And once the initial joke of the title wears off, ultimately, that’s what’s going to give viewers a reason to tune back in. The memes were fun and all, but turns out, the real thing is so much better than we could’ve expected.