2016 ushered in what I consider to be one of the most underrated shows in TV history. At this point, I was already sick of people telling me to watch Game of Thrones, and instead found astute interest in The Young Pope. This Italian-produced show from creator Paolo Sorrentino told the story of Lenny Belardo: the extremely conservative Archbishop of New York who is elected as the eponymous New Pope (Pious XIII) of the Catholic Church, the result of failed schemes by the rest of the Holy See. Lenny proves to be a provocative and dangerous leader, vectoring the entire Church towards reverting to the powerful and mysterious entity they once were in the Middle Ages. I found the show to be fascinating. The cigarette-smoking, Coke-drinking, seductive Pious XIII proved to be a loose canon for the rest of the church. His conduct brought up legitimate questions about the handling of scandals, social acceptance, ecumenicalism, and the indulgence of influence. After Lenny (minor spoiler) has a heart attack at the conclusion of the series, the possibility of a second season was questionable, but I was open to the idea.
Thankfully, Sorrentino resurrected the series with a new twist on the potentials of papacy. The New Pope is a stylistic take on what would happen if the world had, well, two popes. Lenny’s cardiac arrest prompts The Vatican’s Chief of Staff Angelo Voielo (played brilliantly by the returning Silvio Orlando), along with a team of Archbishops and marketing director Sofia Dubois (Cecile de France) to frantically search for a new Pope that could garner the same attention and fascination held by Pious XIII. Sorrentino chooses to tell this story differently by tinging the narrative with pop-art style, which is where things get strange, sometimes to disappointing effect.
In the first episode’s opening credits, a group of nuns prepare for bed in a nunnery. As soon as the lights turn out, one by one, they undress into scant, silky night gowns. The large erect cross at the end of their room proceed to light up in flashing neon glow. The nuns gather around and start dancing and grinding all over it and each other to the theme of Sofi Tukker’s ‘Good Time Girl’. So at this point I’m thinking…
“Ah..this is going to be one of THOSE shows…”
Sure enough, this was one of THOSE shows, which prioritizes style and scandal over substance. Sorrentino tries to give a constant impression that the Devil has slithered in all aspects of the Church, which just gets annoying. I’m fine with stylistic touch if its serves the purpose of the story or enhances the mood. I am less forgiving when it is pushed to the audience in excess to the point of severe distraction. The New Pope is full of moments where I thought “Ok we got it: SOOOO SCANDALOUS!!” Sexual deviance is prominent, as is homosexuality in the clergy (which is only bizarre because that seems to be literally ALL the clergy here), and murder is borderline mainstay. When applied to a few characters, I think this is helpful in emphasizing the hypocrisy of overpowered religious institutions. When every two seconds there’s a new spat of religious exploitation well beyond any shrivel of realism, it takes away from other more important themes and plotlines. The sheer pompousness is nearly overbearing at many points.
On the contrary, a case where this technique is properly used is found in the character of Bishop John Brannox, played by John Malkovich. Voielo and team find Brannox as a potential Papal candidate, buried away at his isolated inherited mansion in the UK. Brannox is commanding in presence; he is the first Punk-Goth Bishop, a man ravaged by self-doubt after the tragic death of his twin brother and rejection by Parents. He adheres to a solemn existential ideology befit of Kierkegaard. He wears eyeliner and mulls about like a sad diva in his empty halls. John Malkovich chooses to portray this character with poise rather than excess, which draws attention primarily to his words, and less to his appearance, making for a subtly eccentric character. Upon donning the Papal robes, Brannox (Pope John Paul III) fights to bring his “middle way” ideology to a Church in torment, but seeing his own personal demons be revealed drives a satisfyingly quirky narrative.
Of course there is the correct implication that Pious XIII returns in a way. Lenny’s re-integration into the story does not detract from Brannox’s plights, but instead creates a worthwhile adversary of sorts. The circumstances of his return raise a number of questions, many of which are handled by Lenny’s devious inclinations to refreshingly surprising effect. There is no “final battle” of whit in a sense that one might suspect from this show, but we are instead given a befitting finale which satisfies the show’s core themes of personal value and radical personalities.
Unfortunately, the pompous excess of this show’s aesthetics and side-character choices doesn’t play in its favor. More often than not, these effects result in cringe-worthy dialogue and muddled pacing. It is a prominent enough issue to where I became annoyed through large portions of many episodes. I respect Paolo Sorrentino for taking The New Pope in a creatively different direction, but while it is refreshing on the surface level, his path is clearly not the righteous one. 6.66/10
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