Critic's Notebook: How HBO's 'The Young Pope' Is Fooling Us All

Yes, it's weird and funny and perfect meme fodder, but the HBO series starring Jude Law as an unconventional American pontiff has deeper issues on its mind.
Fremantlemedia International
Jude Law in 'The Young Pope'

You know from the first frame of HBO's The Young Pope (as a baby crawls over piles of other babies until the camera tilts down to find star Jude Law, dressed in his papal gown, crawl out from the bottom of the pyramid of babies) that things are going to be weird, that writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is in full control of his vision and that that vision is one American audiences haven't seen too often.

But even before that, if you're been on social media at all, you probably know about The Young Pope from its various memes, some of them creative but many of them playing off the title and the word "young" in a contextually inaccurate way. This is a show that has been, and will continue to be, talked about for reasons that are temporarily amusing but fail to get at the essence of what Sorrentino is after. And perhaps the odd beauty of The Young Pope is that that essence is a moving target. Early episodes are a combination of off-kilter weirdness and dry humor, but the series begins to shift into a less eccentric mode quicker than may be expected and, after five episodes (half of the first season), the show becomes a surprisingly serious meditation on loneliness and faith.

But first, the strange factor in The Young Pope.

From that opening sequence with the babies, there is no scaling back of the outlandish. It extends from Law's opening fever dream into a scene where he greets the rapturous crowds at the Vatican with a speech that drives away the rain, produces a blue and sunny sky and then culminates in the most progressive Papal statement in history (pro-sex, pro-masturbation, pro-gay-clergy, pro-nuns delivering mass), complete with slapstick-like fainting and, finally, the revelation that this American pope, named Lenny Belardo, needs to wake up. And he does. But what Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) has cleverly done with that scene is head-fake the audience. Those faithful Pope fans become, upon hearing this progressive speech, more stunned than happy. Individual shots of them show their disapproval. It makes the television audience believe that the new Pope's views will be too youthful, too American, too untraditional.

But then, in a succession of amusing scenes that take advantage of Law's magnetic and telegenic visage, his ability to do an American accent and his talent for portraying the blunt forthrightness of powerful people, we find out that Lenny Belardo, who will now be called Pope Pius XIII (that should have been a hint), is, in fact, about as conservative as they come. He's aiming, with his reign, to turn back all the Vatican advances that might be deemed progressive, and, going well past that, to root out homosexual priests, make deeply restrictive demands on the 1 billion Catholics around the world and in the process make the Vatican an even more powerful and ominous player in world affairs

Not that Young Pope loses its weirdness in this journey: There's a recurring appearance by a kangaroo, references to Cherry Coke Zero, plenty more dream sequences, lots of cigarette smoking and the brilliant comedic antics of Silvio Orlando, just one of many Italian and international actors in the cast, and Diane Keaton as a nun. But as the series becomes less aggressively offbeat, viewers are left to ponder something that isn't a meme, that isn't "Jude Law as the young pope!" or the false premise (which Sorrentino easily denied based on when he started writing the series) that the show is somehow a political satire on the rise of Donald Trump. Once you get used to the exceptionally beautiful cinematography, the magnificent use of lighting and the directorial flourishes, what you're left with is a dramedy that has morphed, before our eyes, into something more substantial.

Rarely have I watched a series — other than, say, Twin Peaks — where I keep thinking, "Wait, what?" so often. And when Young Pope has some distance from the dream sequences or kangaroos, it still challenges your understanding of what it wants to be and what it's trying to do.

I applaud that, and television, even in this Platinum Age, can use more of that. What's most intriguing is that whatever impulses I may have to judge the series at this point, the fact remains that there are another five episodes for me to digest, and Sorrentino has proven already that he can pivot at any moment and go deeper into the absurd or the dramatic, sometimes simultaneously. I have no idea if The Young Pope, once the first season is in the books (a second hasn't been ordered but is being written by Sorrentino and certainly seems likely), will deliver on its ambitions. But I'm thoroughly engaged by the process of getting there. 

I think part of the peculiar nature of this series has to do with the fact that it's from an Italian filmmaker and operates outside the rhythms of both American television and our cousin, British television. If you watched the Italian gangster TV series Gomorrah, you got a sense of how pacing is done differently abroad (same for the French series The Last Panthers), but while those clearly were influenced by American television, Young Pope seems like an idiosyncratic 10-hour movie from a visionary that has been chopped up into episodes (which don't feel disjointed, to be clear).

So what we're getting is a story from an Italian director who takes a premise — what if, through a series of machinations or, you know, divine intervention, an American cardinal unexpectedly became pope and nobody had any idea how he'd govern — and starts toying with the inevitable preconceived reactions to that premise. I'm happy that HBO is involved in this international co-production and is taking what amounts to a different kind of risk for the channel.

Sorrentino, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, called the series "a thriller of the soul," and I guarantee you there have not been many if any memes about that. He used that description while distancing his series from House of Cards (which never seemed, to me, like an accurate comparison in the first place). And in that same interview, Sorrentino said perhaps the most striking thing about what his show explores — and it's striking because it has less than Cherry Coke Zero to do with all the memes and jokes made before most had seen it or even given it a chance: "In the final analysis, it talks about that unsettling little noise of solitude, of loneliness that's inside all of us and that never balances. Which is not the solitude of somebody who doesn't have anybody to chat with in the evening, but it is a more profound, deeper condition and sense of uneasiness [that] in the final analysis you are alone. And that's why those who have that knowledge of this solitude ask themselves the question of God."

Yes, the question of God. Not exactly, "It's about a pope — and he's young!"

What we might be getting in The Young Pope is a bait-and-switch that the creator had nothing to do with, but social media — by hijacking it before it even aired — did. By the third episode and even more so by the fourth and fifth, the show is very much about faith and God and loneliness and spirituality and belief — the latter two ideas very different from the first two. It could be that a series many people want to joke about (and one that itself likes to be funny and odd but not necessarily campy or overly satirical) is very cleverly talking about much bigger issues than anyone expected.


Twitter: @BastardMachine