The Young Pope premieres on Sunday, January 15. You probably heard about this show, provided you spent any time on the internet in the past two weeks or have spoken to me at any point since the trailer was released last fall and I first heard the line “This pope does not negotiate.” Before you tune in to watch, however, there are two very important things about the show that you should know, which I will now explain to you. Please focus. Take notes if you need to.
THING NUMBER ONE: The Young Pope is a real show
This is probably the most important thing. It’s understandable if you assumed otherwise. It is a show called The Young Pope, starring Jude Law as a young pope. It kind of doesn’t sound real. It sounds like a show Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock would come up with while drinking scotch in his office, one that we’d later see in a fake little moving ad at the bottom of the screen toward the end of the episode. And then with the flood of memes and jokes that hit Twitter leading up to the premiere (something we in the entertainment community refer to as “the full Sharknado“), you wouldn’t be out of line in thinking this was all a big internet hoax. But, I assure you, it is not. The Young Pope is very much a real show. Here is the official description from HBO.
‘The Young Pope’ tells the controversial story of the beginning of Pius XIII’s pontificate. Born Lenny Belardo, he is a complex and conflicted character, so conservative in his choices as to border on obscurantism, yet full of compassion towards the weak and poor. The first American pope, Pius XIII is a man of great power who is stubbornly resistant to the Vatican courtiers, unconcerned with the implications to his authority.
Other relevant information: The series was created by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) and produced in partnership with Europe’s Sky Television. Diane Keaton plays Sister Mary, a nun who took the young(er) orphaned Lenny in as a child, and has now been promoted to informal number two in the Vatican. James Cromwell plays Lenny’s mentor, Cardinal Spencer, who is passed over in the vote that elevates Lenny and is really quite livid about it. Silvio Orlando plays Cardinal Voiello, the scheming and devious Vatican Secretary of State who starts the series with hopes of controlling Lenny like a pope puppet (a “poppet,” maybe, and yes, I already regret that) and quickly finds himself at war. Ludivine Sagnier plays a woman who is recruited to try to lure Lenny into a scandal.
These are the facts. But they are barely important, really, because…
THING NUMBER TWO: The Young Pope is a big fancy mess
The best way to explain The Young Pope, I think, is like this: It is a beautiful, less subtle version of House of Cards. Jude Law’s character — and I really do recommend you try throwing a “friggin” in front of “Lenny Belardo,” because it rolls off the tongue majestically — summons people to his office to steamroll them in a not great regional American-based accent, and engages in morally dubious plots to gain and hold power, and does literally everything short of addressing the camera head-on to make his points. He is Frank Underwood in flowing white robes.
The Young Pope is also insane. Really, truly insane. You won’t believe some of the things that happen on this show. There’s a montage of Jude Law putting on robes set to “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO. Diane Keaton answers the door to her nun’s quarters in a t-shirt that says “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt.” A kangaroo roams the Vatican. The pope chastises his staff about breakfast because the only thing he wants is a Cherry Coke Zero. Cardinal Voiello has a preposterous mole on his cheek that a cursory Google image search of the actor who plays him reveals is fake. The whole thing opens with a fantasy sequence that features our protagonist crawling out of a baby pyramid, and if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait, does he mean ‘baby pyramid’ like ‘a small pyramid,’ or like an actual pyramid made of babies?,” then I am pleased to inform you that you are now asking exactly the right questions about this show.
Also, if you want to see Jude Law brood while leaning on a table, buddy, do I ever have good news for you.
The temptation here is to call the whole thing an exercise in papal camp, which would be mostly fair if it wasn’t also beautiful. Sorrentino does great work in the show’s biggest moments, delivering sweeping wide shots and dramatically staged scenes that feel like they deserve to be seen on a giant IMAX screen instead of a television. (Or, in my case, a laptop screen.) It’s strange. It’s almost like The Young Pope is two shows at once: one, a goofy and clunky story about a power-mad pope intent on ruling through fear, the kind of thing more suited for basic cable or a flush-with-cash streaming outlet that is still getting the hang of the television thing; the other, a visually stunning work of art that befits its HBO pedigree. With kangaroos. There’s a lot going on here. I think that’s what I’m getting at.
Which, and let’s be clear about this, is fine. There’s more than one way to enjoy a television drama. The Young Pope is probably not going to win a bunch of prestigious awards and set the world on fire like Game of Thrones. It also will not enthrall the screencapping/theorizing corner of the internet like Westworld, unless Lenny Belardo is revealed to be a robot in the season finale, which is something I started typing as a joke but soon realized we can’t really rule out with this show. What it is, on the other hand, is a highly-GIFable, occasionally silly, high-concept show, kind of like if CBS woke up tomorrow and decided to give Zoo a $100 million budget. I’m not sure HBO will like that description very much (and apologies to Diane Keaton, who I still can’t believe is in this show), but as someone who very much appreciates that sort of programming, please know that I mean it in the best way possible.
The Young Pope premieres Sunday, January 15 on HBO