'The New Pope': TV Review

By turns transcendent and fatuous, it's like nothing else on TV.
1/12/2020

Paolo Sorrentino returns to HBO and the Vatican with Jude Law's young pope... and John Malkovich's other pope.

Distance haunts the believers of The New Pope, the rechristened HBO limited series that serves as Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino's follow-up to his The Young Pope.

Debuting in 2016, that first season found the Vatican anointing its first American pontiff, an outrageously handsome hellion named Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) who sought to bring the diehard faithful closer to God at the risk of alienating the rest of Christendom. As Pope Pius XIII, he purged the priestly ranks of gay clerics and refused sacrament to women who had abortions, exposing through his intolerance the tyrannical potential inherent in any position of supposed infallibility. To his skeptical right-hand man, the Vatican's secretary of state Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), Pius' severity merely illustrated the chasm between the papacy and the rest of humanity. As the administrator of the Church's earthly dealings, Voiello had to consider what Pius wouldn't: the growing perception that it wasn't ordinary people who were getting further away from God, but the Holy Father himself.

But The Young Pope and now The New Pope, which stars John Malkovich as the titular pontiff, are marked by two other kinds of distance: Sorrentino's chilly remove, as well as his relative unfamiliarity with American cultural trends. (Law suitably resembles an albino tiger on the prowl in two of the show's most iconic looks — a head-to-toe ivory tracksuit and tight, white skivvies — but you can't say his character looks remotely American in them.) Despite the three-and-a-half-year gap between The Young Pope and The New Pope, the nine-part sequel series feels remarkably contiguous with its predecessor: a hard-to-categorize blend of papal power struggles, Freudian melodrama, art house sketch comedy, sophomoric provocations, impenetrably cerebral sermons and some of the most heart-flutteringly beautiful compositions and plays with color and texture and light on all of television.

Occasionally, The New Pope flirts with transcendence. But it also makes for some insultingly dumb TV, especially when it comes to its female characters. For my tastes, it takes more than it gives, beckoning admiration more readily than it entertains or excites. But there's no doubt the series will find a small following ready to worship at its Prada-clad feet.

The Young Pope concluded with Pius collapsing after catching a possible glimpse of his now-elderly parents, who abandoned him as a child and whose loss he never got over. Set several months later, The New Pope begins with the previous pontiff in a coma, and Voiello ready to call for a new papal election. The premiere is essentially a punt, ushering in a Pope Francis stand-in (unsubtly dubbed Francis II) to satirize leftist fantasies of a socialist pontiff who'd liquidate Church assets to eliminate global poverty. Naturally, the cardinals, ordered to give up their finery, immediately conspire against their leader.

With Pius unconscious, Voiello becomes our default protagonist — a schemer with sky-high ambitions, but without the charismatic talents to persuade others to make his dreams a reality. As ever, the cardinal is forced to gamble on yet another pope: this time, a modest, mild-tempered Londoner named John Paul III (Malkovich), who preaches love while being keenly aware of having been ejected from his own parents' hearts after the sudden death of his favored twin brother long ago. Where Pius railed, John Paul will woo — or so Voiello cautiously hopes, perfectly aware that no one on a throne gets to retain all of their humanity.

The New Pope trailers presaged a thunderous showdown between the young, petulant demagogue and the new, wily intellectual, but Sorrentino takes the most tortuous road possible toward that inevitable meeting between pope and pope. He also crams a host of side intrigues, none of them particularly involving, among them an Islamic terrorist threat, a nuns' strike, several affairs among the Vatican's top brass and guest appearances by Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone, who play themselves.

Manson gently spoofs his own shock-rock image while Stone gets to remind the public once more of her self-professed genius IQ. But these scenes, which include a cringe-inducing Basic Instinct joke, mostly underscore the fact that either Sorrentino or John Paul III hasn't paid much attention to American pop culture in literally decades. That out-of-touchness contributes to the show's unmoored sense of reality. Governed by a cinematic dream logic, The New Pope doesn't seem to take place in our world, nor in a universe that feels especially recognizable. Perhaps that's why Sorrentino ultimately has little to say about what the Catholic Church as it stands is or could be.

That sense of unreality is strongest when it comes to The New Pope's women. Any series set in the Vatican is bound to be a sausage fest, but that doesn't make the credulity-straining destinies of its female characters any more believable, let alone affecting. Diane Keaton's Sister Mary, who appeared in The Young Pope, has effectively vanished without explanation (even though, as Lenny's devoted surrogate mother and foremost believer in his God-given healing abilities, she should be immovable from his side during his coma). The nuns' protest is resolved with nothing resembling the feminist determination of many real-life Sisters' objections to institutional Catholicism. A storyline involving three older men's sexual exploitation of an underage teenage girl is treated with nothing approaching seriousness. And most demoralizingly, Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), an infertile women who gave birth to a son through one of Pius' miracles in The Young Pope, is driven toward a supposedly benevolent sort of sex work — one that nauseatingly posits sex for male virgins as a kind of Christian charity.

It's the kind of pointless and ultimately scolding titillation that you'd expect from a show that thinks there's something transgressive about a montage of nuns in see-through nightgowns dancing to techno in front of a neon cross. It makes for a fun, eye-catching curio, but also something of a relic.

Cast: Jude Law, John Malkovich, Silvio Orlando, Javier Camara, Cecile de France, Ludivine Sagnier
Creators: Paolo Sorrentino
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)