The Young Pope, a portrait of a hardline-conservative leader asserting his authority, was a wild and surprising piece of television, one that cheekily upended the idea of a stuffy Vatican while telling a cautionary tale about the dangers of power left unchecked. Although The Young Pope took a number of digressive detours — remember the kangaroo? — it still possessed a sense of focus: Every episode built upon the one before it, revealing the extremes to which Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) would go and how useless every attempt to undermine him would turn out to be.
Premiering Monday on HBO, The New Pope, writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s successor to The Young Pope, is a much more meandering affair. Picking up where the story left off back in 2017, Pius XIII is in a coma that prevents him from performing his duties. Vatican officials have to install someone in his place, and after one effort goes awry, they land on Sir John Brannox, a wealthy Catholic languishing on his family’s estate outside of London. Brannox, who eventually becomes Pope John Paul III, is played by John Malkovich with an initial demeanor that doesn’t exactly scream Holy Father. When the Vatican officials, including the scheming Voiello (Silvio Orlando), first meet Sir John, he has mascara and eyeliner smeared under his eyes, and he splays his body across sofas like an impatient cat who has nothing to do but wants to get to that nothing immediately.
Once he’s all decked out in his vestments, Brannox takes his role more seriously, though his motivations are questionable. During a meeting with Sofia (Cécile de France), the Vatican’s communications director, he notes that his favorite celebrities are Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Sharon Stone, and Marilyn Manson, at which point she notes that, as pope, he could conceivably meet any of them, except the late Hopper. In subsequent episodes, the pope does indeed meet with both Manson and Stone, who arrives at the Vatican without a gift for the Holy Father but winds up giving him the heels straight off her feet. (In a winking aside, Sofia tells Brannox he reminds her of the actor John Malkovich. “He doesn’t do much for me,” Sir John says after a moment’s thought, proving yet again that Malkovich may be the most meta actor of all time.)
Malkovich is terrific in the role. The problem is that John Paul III is not as fully developed a character as Pius was in the first season. He has similar psychological issues — in a different context, this new pope also feels he was abandoned by his parents — but he doesn’t seem to have firm convictions. He advocates for what he calls a “middle way” of being pope, the theological equivalent of centrism. As fun as it is to watch Malkovich inhabit him, he’s not as compelling as Pius, whose presence hovers over the season despite his being unconscious for a lot of it.
Certain that their idol will recover, Pius’s most loyal followers hold a vigil for him. He also “visits” characters as though he were their spiritual guide. Then, yes, he does eventually wake up, which I assume is not a miracle as much as a response to my shouting “Wake up, Jude Law!” multiple times during episodes three through five. (This is not a spoiler: The trailer for The New Pope makes clear that Pius doesn’t stay asleep forever.) When he reenters the picture, the show gets more interesting. Just as the Catholic Church or any organization benefits from having a clear, charismatic leader, so does this series.
Even when John Paul III is in charge, The New Pope doesn’t fully structure the episodes around him. The drama spends far too much time on uninteresting side plots that don’t ultimately connect to the main narrative in meaningful ways. Ester (Ludivine Sagnier), a Pius devotee, gets a ton of screen time as she does whatever she has to do, including selling her body, to make money to raise her son. There’s also a major conflict between Vatican officials and the nuns who serve the cardinals that may as well be its own show. Throughout, Voiello continues to engage in underhanded plots designed to keep him in his role as secretary of State, one he has occupied, as he reminds anyone who will listen, longer than any cardinal in history.
Sorrentino still brings enormous visual flair to the screen along with a cheeky sense of humor. Most episodes open with a group of nuns, dressed in diaphanous nightgowns, gyrating to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl.” As the trailer promises, Pius does indeed strut down a beach in a white Speedo while bikini-clad women toss beach balls over his head (in a fantasy sequence, but still). And Malkovich adds extra spice to already spicy lines: When Brannox’s assistant informs him that Meghan (as in Markle) is on the phone and needs some fashion advice, he responds, “What a nuisance.” When nuisance escapes Malkovich’s lips, it isn’t a mere word; it’s an entire galaxy of irritation.
The New Pope would be much more enjoyable if it were streamlined into the five or six episodes necessary to effectively tell the story that needs to be told. Instead, we get nine, at least three of which just tread water. The moment viewers will be waiting for is the meeting between Pius and John Paul, a meeting that shall henceforth be known as The Two Popes 2.0. But viewers may have lost patience with — one might even say faith in — the season well before that coveted moment finally arrives.