‘The Young Pope’ has everything you want — and don’t
Matthew Macke | Monday, February 13, 2017
“The Young Pope” is like a Swiss Army knife. It does everything.
Most of the time it’s a political thriller, but it isn’t afraid to become a work-place comedy or emotional drama when it feels the need. The HBO miniseries can even whip out striking surrealism in the form of apparitions or a kangaroo running loose in the papal gardens, to accentuate the mood that it is currently trying to perpetuate. Whatever you want in a TV show, chances are you can find it, in some form or another, in “The Young Pope.”
Like the Swiss Army knife my parents gave me that one year I was a Boy Scout though, I don’t really know what to do with “the Young Pope.” It is considered a masterpiece by some reviewers and a disappointment by others. The humor is occasionally so subtle that it can be hard to discern whether it was intentional or just a slightly misshapen chunk of dialogue. Essentially, the show exists so perpetually in a nebulous region of non-genre that it demands the audience expect anything while simultaneously leaving them unprepared for moments of outright seriousness or humor, as when the College of Cardinals files into the Sistine Chapel while LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” pulses in the background.
The premise of the show is oddly perfect for this ambiguity. “The Young Pope” follows the newly appointed Pope Pius XIII, the first American pope, as he sets the tone for his papacy. The young man, known prior to his pontification as Lenny Belardo, reveals himself to be somewhat of an uber-conservative. The juxtaposition of his physical youth and elderly ideology is made apparent in the first episode, when a dream sequence initially shows the titular young pope announcing a series of progressive policies (less sexual taboos, female priests, that sort of thing) only to have him remark later that this was a strange dream. Instead, Pius wants to make the Church sexy again by making it as inaccessible as possible. He even keeps his face hidden during his first appearance before the crowd at St. Peter’s so that he can maintain an air of mystery like Daft Punk or Banksy (his comparisons, not mine).
This ironic twist of perspective means that even the main character in this religious dramedy lacks apparent moral superiority. He campaigns to drive homosexuals out of the clergy but is portrayed as one of the few men in the Vatican who doesn’t succumb to sexual temptation. It is unclear whether or not this young pope is someone the audience should be rooting for or against. Part of the reason for this lack of clarity has to do with how the issues that face the Church, and the clergy especially, are unique. The scandals of the Catholic Church are relatively tame compared to those of most shows focusing on political machinations. A priest’s alcoholism is deemed a severe transgression, while a senator’s alcoholism is more of an inconvenience. In spite of the fact that the issues are much smaller, the stakes are much higher. People look to the pope for spiritual and moral guidance, even miracles. This creates a fascinating dynamic — one ideal for straddling the line between comedy and drama (and just about everything else).
Jude Law, who plays the freshly minted pope, is brilliant in the lead role. His Pius marches the camel through the eye of the needle by somehow managing to leave the audience guessing as to whether he is a Vatican political prodigy or a young man hoping to fake it until he makes it. There is a sense of danger in that things might fall apart at any moment, but also one of security that Lenny actually has a plan and isn’t just spewing hot air. Normally this sort of translucency would get old quickly, but the HBO feature’s versatility keeps you engrossed. You’ll keep watching to find out where the show’s going — more in regard to tone than plot. All in all, it’s hard to criticize a show that does everything. Sure, the plot is meandering and there are maybe two engaging characters, but I still want to know what “The Young Pope” has in store.
Like I said, the show’s a Swiss Army knife. It might do so many different things that I end up never using it for anything, but you better believe I still want to take it to camp with me.