Five episodes were provided to us prior to broadcast.
Whether religious or otherwise, HBO’s latest miniseries The Young Pope will provoke a reaction out of you. Silly, sensational, stylistic and quite often sublimely sacrilegious, writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s daring, astounding, contemporary, deeply erratic-but-defiantly bold television program is the type of devilish, tongue-in-cheek dramedy that’ll either become your latest unholy addiction or the fiendish destain of your local church gatherings. Maybe it’ll be both? It certainly won’t be neither. It’ll be controversial, and it’ll most definitely be discussed, both with praise and scorn. But God help you if you don’t have fun watching its ferocious temptations come ablaze.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. The Young Pope might be one of the most scandalously marvelous original television programs of the new year and I gave into the seduction. It’s splashy, sexy, twisted, fearless, unabashed, unashamed, lavish, extravagant, devious, delicious, audacious, bizarre and utterly sinful — and that’s merely the first two episodes. I’ll be damned if I said I didn’t have a blast. At its best, it’s a downright heavenly affair. Praise be! Consider me a converter.
Jude Law is at the center as Pope Pius XIII, i.e. Lenny Belardo, the Vatican’s first American Pope and, of course, their youngest in centuries. Those inside the Vatican thought they could use their most youthful holiness to their advantage, believing his well-noticed inexperience would lead to ignorance and, therefore, an open ear to their concerns. Of course, Pope Pius XIII has ideas of his own, and they’re against those bestowed by his peers, much to their shock and distress.
He breaks John Paul II’s smoking ban in the palace quite immediately, for instance. He also refuses to have his face seen by the public, even in photos, and drinks Diet Cherry Coke for breakfast. “It’s death to settle for things in life,” the newest Pope callously notes early on. Indeed, this young Pope has no intention of dying anytime soon. After all, what is youth without rebellion and defiance?
Confident, poised, seductive, mischievous and entirely charismatic in his vindictive ways, Law completely owns this titular role. It’s not merely that his Pope Pius XIII is handsome, roguish and suave; it’s that his Pope knows that he’s all these things and takes them all in vein, filled with contempt and with deceitful satisfaction. If you can imagine Han Solo and Frank Underwood conceiving, then abandoning a Catholic baby in a Romanian orphanage, the very child who’ll later become the most valiant Pope of our virtuous generation, you’d be roughly halfway there.
His eyes pierce and his words cut. This Pope doesn’t intent on making easy followers, and he’s not filled with compassion. He’s abusive and manipulative to his underlings, and he doesn’t want to be loved. Law’s scowl and menace are near Shakespearean in their delivery. King Lear comparisons will be earned and justified. It’s undoubtedly one of his finest performances and characters to date, and he positively relishes in this gloriously ruthless, unpredictable role. He’s an absolute godsend.
The Young Pope will, understandably, be likened to Netflix’s equally succulent House of Cards. Those expecting something as high-brow and serious-minded as HBO’s other dramas might find themselves turned off by Sorrentino’s gleefully disdainful, intentionally ostentatious and very, very European approach to this rambunctious, contemptuous material. Those who like their glitzy melodrama with their fair share of vigorous cinematic flair and presumptuously grandiose cinematics, however, will find a lot to enjoy in this unruly slice of entertainment. To air it on Sundays was a brilliant, beautiful decision.
Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando and James Cromwell round out the supporting cast, and they all stand their ground dutifully. Orlando, in particular, is quick to impress with his sly versatility, while Cromwell gets a lot of meaty, theatrical dialogue, which he ravishes. It would be a sin not to celebrate Luca Bigazzi’s captivatingly stunning cinematography, while the set designs and art direction are among the most impressive you’ll ever find on the television. Plus, Sorrentino’s English dialogue is easier on the ear than it was in his past English productions like, say, This Must Be the Place and Youth. In fact, those who gives this unwavering, proudly weird series a chance might even find it quotable. But The Young Pope‘s virtues are not eternal nor ever consistent.
The juiciness found so plentifully throughout the first two installments starts to run dry in the following episodes, and it slowly starts to decline into some of the pompousness and self-seriousness that is rather groan-worthy in some of Sorrentino’s lesser works. Hopefully, it picks itself up again in the second half of the season, and this is merely a half point drag. There’s a lot to love in the delectable early episodes, and it would be shameful if they went to waste so quickly.
As brave as it is blasphemous, The Young Pope will retract as many followers as it earns. So be it. Like Pope Puis XIII himself, Sorrentino’s limited series isn’t going to play safe to those who don’t appreciate its grandiloquence. There’s rock music. Electronic music. Sex. Language. Nudity. Violence. Indiscreet romances. References to contemporary greats. This isn’t your dad’s Pope; this is the young Pope. He doesn’t give a damn if you hate his style. It’s over-the-top, larger-than-life and, well, holier-than-thou, but it works. It’s prideful, cocky and sometimes pretentious, and it loves it. It’s a spectacle and it knows it. If one makes a show this bombastic, delight in it. It does.
The Young Pope is risky, reckless, flawed and fierce. If you don’t have fun watching it, then the hell with you. God almighty, is this one out for lust and transgressions, but it might possibly be among the most consistently enjoyable, intensely absorbing, venomously-inspired programs HBO has ushered in this era. By the Lord above me, I must confess that I had a hell of a good time with it.
HBO's The Young Pope is sensual, sensational, sacrilegious and utterly sinful. It's also a hell of a good time. Jude Law gives one of his richest, juiciest performances to date in a role that will be one of his most defining. Thank God for HBO.