The Sopranos was the original prestige drama, and we are greatly in its debt, but it is also largely responsible for the scourge of television: the unnecessary dream sequence. Ever since, no antihero can be taken seriously without one. Combine that legacy with a generous dash of Italian art film, straight from the mind of Paolo Sorrentino, and you get the opening shot of The Young Pope.
Yes, Jude Law really does crawl out of a massive pile of babies before delivering a homily in St. Peter’s Square that opens, “Ciao, Rome!” This particular homily, which he will immediately disavow upon waking as “the strangest thing,” calls for the immediate and utter liberalization of the Catholic Church, including endorsements of gay marriage, contraception, married priests, sex disconnected from procreation, and all manner of things that Lenny Belardo, whose hippie parents abandoned him to pursue grooviness, has very little time for.
It’s … a lot. The Young Pope is a lot. It bounces from baroque to rococo and flashes forward to pop art in a blaze. It is also wildly entertaining television. Do we see Lenny’s naked butt in the first two minutes? Of course we do. Jude Law once said that he was happy to no longer be as incandescently beautiful as he once was, since it had restricted his creative choices and been a distraction. He’s still very handsome, of course (even if his Dickie Greenleaf perfection years are behind him), but his Pius XIII is not a character who seduces with charm and beauty. He’s a terrifying, mercurial leader, laying verbal traps and skewering those unlucky enough to stumble into them. He lolls his tongue out of his mouth, pretends to fall asleep, whispers and shouts. It’s marvelously watchable.
Also, it might all come as a bit of a shock. In recent weeks, Twitter has seized onto the meme potential of The Young Pope with such fervor that the American viewing public can be excused for forgetting it was actually going to be a TV show, one received by generous audiences and with a decent measure of critical applause from Europe when it premiere overseas in October. This first episode is, like The Young Pope as a whole, a bit of a mess, but the glorious batshittery of the endeavor nonetheless shines through.
The (young) Pius XIII is prone to saying something almost reasonable, or wildly unreasonable in turn, then giving a sharklike smile and a “I’m joking, it’s a joke” to the unfortunates of Vatican City who must pay court to him. It does keep one on one’s toes. Among those unfortunates are both antagonists and allies, as prominent characters emerge from the mass of interchangeable, red-caped cardinals who dance attendance on Pius. Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), a Vatican power player who had assumed his Young Pope would be tractable, finds him slipping through his fingers at every turn. Pius is not content to simply ignore his advisers; instead, he seems to delight in breaking them down psychologically. When he insisted Voiello trudge over to make him a cup of coffee, I had to watch the scene through my fingers.
We see little of James Cromwell in the first episode — his Cardinal Michael Spencer, who had been Lenny’s mentor, is driven to self-harm at being double-crossed out of the papacy — and only a little more of Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary, who raised Lenny from childhood and therefore has the pope’s ear, if not his full trust. Keaton has not yet had the opportunity to flex her considerable skills, but we can wait. It’s surely coming.
The scene that tells us all we need to know about the managerial (and possibly theological) style of Pius XIII takes place as his gimlet eye surveys the many fine Danishes at his first papal breakfast in the Vatican. “All I have in the morning is a Cherry Coke Zero,” he tells a clearly terrified butler, who offers him a Diet Coke as a temporary soothing tactic.
“It is death,” the Young Pope says, “to settle for things in life.”
Of course, Pius is also prone to intensely meme-able statements: “There’s a new pope now,” he says, after lighting up and being hastily told that his predecessor, John Paul II, had banned smoking in the Vatican. His actions seem deliberately ridiculous and provocative: He demands the papal tiara be immediately bought back from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington; he doesn’t want to discuss his first homily; none of the proposed meetings are agreeable to him; he demands that he get to paw through every present he receives and that they be gathered in a central location for his perusal. Later, he professes to having no sins for which he requires absolution, sending his gentle confessor into fits.
Said gentle confessor, Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo), is sent into even greater fits when it becomes clear that Pius expects him to unburden himself of the seal of the confessional and report any and all relevant sins to the pope himself, as he smokes on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica and delivers his terrifying asides. “GOD DOES NOT EXIST,” Pius declares, before retracting the statement with his patented “just kidding!” as Tommaso clutches his chest and crosses himself with shaking hands. Poor Tommaso is a sweet summer child. We’ll see how well he holds up.
What awaits us in episode two — namely, Pius’s first homily to the faithful who have made the pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Square — will determine whether this Young Pope will be the kind of public firebrand he has clearly chosen to be in private. That, and there seems to be a kangaroo.
On a final note, I spent much of this episode thinking about Donald Trump (while fighting my own impulse to make everything about Donald Trump), but there are elements of Pius XIII that make comparisons inevitable. Being a brash outsider with a laundry list of demands, sure, that’s half the antiheroes on television, but it’s the aforementioned moment with Tommaso, when he claims to have no sins of which to repent, that really brought it home. Voiello and Spencer thought they could control Pius, that he was more interested in photo ops and adoration than the nitty-gritty of church politics. Now they have an entirely different pope on their hands. Let’s watch him burn this mother down.