Well, that was certainly not the show that I thought it was going to be.
To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what The Young Pope was going to be like. The idea of Jude Law playing the Pope seemed like an unconventional choice and the title was terrible, but I’ve never let that stop me before (I did, after all, watch the entire run of Cougar Town). I did make the assumption that The Young Pope would be a straight drama about the inner workings of the church under the leadership of a young pontiff. Until I saw the first trailer, I thought that this was going to be a period piece, rather than being set in modern times. Since historical drama are all the rage, that would have seemed like the obvious choice.
There is absolutely nothing about The Young Pope that is an obvious choice.
I was completely unprepared for how bonkers this show would be. The opening scene of the series is a baby crawling over other babies and then Jude Law emerges from said pyramid of babies. I’ll admit that I was only half paying attention the first time I saw this, because who expects a pyramid of babies in the first ten seconds of an HBO drama. I was instantly confused and had to rewind the DVR to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. I would be confused a few more times in the first episode as it took me some time to figure out what this show was doing – and it’s doing a lot of things. It’s both funny and serious in ways that were unanticipated. It’s gorgeously shot and it covers a lot of territory – faith, some of the ridiculousness of Church traditions, power, narcissism, loneliness. As I tweeted out while watching it, there is a lot more nudity, smoking and kangaroos than you would have anticipated for a show called The Young Pope. The show is weird and chaotic and even a little messy, but once I just let the show teach me how to watch it, I was totally sucked in. The Young Pope is really not like much else that’s on television and I’ll take weirdly original, yet imperfect over traditional and safe any day.
The Young Pope is the brainchild of Oscar winning director Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the entire ten episode season. When The Young Pope begins, 47-year old Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) has been just elected Pope Pius XIII. His selection in the conclave was orchestrated by Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) who believed that Belardo wound be a puppet for him. Belardo, however, has different ideas about that and soon a power struggle emerges between the two men. Belardo is aided by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who raised him in an orphanage and is appointed as his personal secretary. Belardo is not what the Vatican was expecting – he smokes, rejects publicity and the liberal philosophy of his predecessor, and is more than ready to play the game of Papal politics. Pope Pius XIII is old school and Old Testament; he’s charismatic and cruel. He may or may not actually believe in God, but he sure thinks that he’s the Almighty’s spokesperson. There’s a lot of dichotomies floating around in this show and yet somehow they make it all work. Though this show was conceived and written a few years ago, there are definitely parallels that can be made to the current political climate here in the U.S. and abroad. You have to respect a show that makes the decision to portray the Pope as kind of a dick. Law’s hat game, though, is flawless:
Jude Law is really the perfect person to play Lenny/Pope Pius XIII. I really can’t imagine anyone else pulling off this role so well, given that Lenny is so many things rolled into one. Law can bring fire and brimstone down in one scene and then be exceptionally funny in the next. That’s a skill set that not a lot of actors have, and his good looks can’t help but draw you in even when he’s plotting his next move or being unnecessarily condescending. He’s the pretty package in which a lot of ugly ideas are presented and even though I don’t know that Pope Pius XIII is likeable, you are drawn to him. There are also a lot of layers to his back story that I look forward to them unpacking in subsequent episodes. Law perfectly dances the line of contempt and comedy, campy and cruel. It helps that you can’t look at Law without kind of assuming he’s a smug jerk; that’s not entirely fair to Law, who I’ve seen be nothing but pleasant on many occasions, but for this role his inherent latent jerkiness is an asset.
Through two episodes, the rest of the cast is strong as well. Diane Keaton is great in her role as confidant and co-conspirator. She seems to be having a good time with the role, which also require some deft maneuvering as Sister Mary vacillates between the role of mother and subordinate. There’s a fascinating dynamic unfolding between Sister Mary’s relationship with Lenny and her relationship with Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), another orphan that was raised alongside Lenny. Keaton is almost always great and she’s given a lot to do in The Young Pope.
It’s worth repeating again – this is a weird show. While the intrigue and plotting behind the scenes at the Vatican is kind of reminiscent of power struggles on traditional HBO dramas like The Sopranos or The Wire, The Young Pope zigs when you think it will zag. There are odd little moments sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that constantly make you feel a little off balance. The whole thing with the kangaroo is a good example, as is random scenes of the nuns killing it playing soccer. But I don’t think anything made me laugh as much as Keaton’s Sister Mary answering the door of her Vatican apartment in this:
That’s hilarious on a bazillion levels.
The Young Pope may not be everyone’s cup of tea and you do need to stick with the show to get used to the tonal shifts and absurdity of some of what’s going on. But underneath some of the more bizarre choices, there is a really interesting story unfolding about power and narcissism, about tradition and change. I personally think that some of the odder choices contribute to this storytelling, but mileage may vary. If you do watch the show, it’s important to know that you are supposed to laugh at some of it; these were conscious decisions, not poorly executed drama. I’m all in – after binge watching the first two episodes, I’m legitimately bummed that I have to wait a week for this story to continue. The Young Pope could kind of go in any direction, which is exciting. I’m not a religious person, but I’m down on spending an hour a week at the Vatican.