The Young Pope – Season 1 (2016)
Created by Paolo Sorrentino
Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) has just been ordained as Pope Pius XIII, and his first act as the head of the Catholic Church is to do…nothing. He’s not giving a big speech in St. Peter’s Square. He won’t talk to the press. He won’t even allow his photograph to be taken. The leadership at the Vatican quickly learns that Pius plans to close the Church off from the public, an attempt to reverse any progressive ideas pushed by former popes. As we delve further, we learn that Pius is an orphan, raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), whom he brings to his new papal palace to act as his chief of staff. There is also his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) who was considered the traditional favorite to be chosen as pope. Due to back door machinations and Spencer having ill will from some of the other cardinals, a bet was taken on the wild card, Belardo. What follows is the strange story of Pope Pius, the orphan pope, the mysterious Pope, The Young Pope.
I had a passing familiarity with the work of Paolo Sorrentino but had never actually watched any of his films. I have to say I was happily blown away with my first introduction. Throughout the entire ten-episode run I was reminded of David Lynch and Twin Peaks. In the same way that that television series was so singularly an introduction to the style and storytelling of a sole creator, The Young Pope is a fresh, energetic opening to the work of Sorrentino. From the first scene your expectations are challenged, and with each subsequent episode, as soon as you think you know what this show is, it shakes its head and pulls the carpet out from underneath you. I think such an inventive and surprising style of show matches the surreal nature of the Vatican itself. The institution is such a strange thing to think about existing in a 21st-century context so a show about it shouldn’t attempt pure realism. There are many flashbacks, dreams, and visions and Sorrentino doesn’t necessarily concern himself about signaling when we are switching into one or away from one. The audience’s intelligence is respected enough that the literal and the metaphor intermingle and we are expected to understand the larger meaning.
The visuals of The Young Pope are so striking. In the first episode, we have a fantasy benediction played out in the daydreams of Pius that features the Cardinals falling backward as they faint, their feet up in the air. Later, a kangaroo is frequently seen hopping around the papal gardens. The phantom of a young woman being offered up for sainthood rushes past Pius on his walks. The pope is visited by a Congress of popes from history whom he asks for and receives lackluster advice. Sorrentino’s camera is so fluid, reminiscent of Kubrick and Malick. The music of the series is also entirely unexpected and playful. Modern tracks appear throughout, most notably LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy, and I Know It” as Pius prepares for his first address to the College of Cardinals. Andrew Bird’s “Logan’s Loop” is used multiple times to convey moments of levity or the softening of the Pope. The opening credits of the series are a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that is an immediate sign this is not going to be a stoic observation of what life is really like inside the Vatican.
It is not an exaggeration for me to say I think this is Jude Law’s finest performance to date. Pius is a tremendously difficult character to portray. He is a direct contradiction to what the audience might expect. A young, American pope is anticipated to be a modernist and progressive, but Pius seeks to bring the Church back to an era thought gone forever. He is highly acerbic and unlikable, yet deep into the series events conspire that cause a shift in the Pope’s mindset. My early perceptions of the series are that it would be the story of forces working against Pius and his battle against them. Instead, the show becomes one of redemption and about how people can change, given time and people who will listen to them. And more importantly, people who will challenge them.
I can confidently say there is nothing on television like The Young Pope. It is a type of show that asks questions about spirituality and God most networks seem nervous to let a program ask. It’s a show that is most definitely about human beings, the fallibility, and the power to come back from those failings and try again.