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‘The Young Pope:’ The best, weirdest show of the decade

| Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

In a television landscape populated with dragons, demons and whatever the heck Teddy Perkins is, the strangest place in the universe is the Vatican. At least, that’s what the best show of the 2010s would have you think. Paolo Sorrentino’s one-season wonder “The Young Pope” expertly bridged the gap between two eras of television — it took the antihero craze of TV’s Golden Age to its logical extreme while reveling in the pure absurdity offered by the best of so-called “Peak TV.” Even when “The Young Pope” embraced contemporary TV conventions, it was also gleefully turning them on their head. The end result was a transcendent work of art that stands above the rest in the most content-saturated decade in television history. 

The show’s premiere in early 2017 was preceded by a wave of incredulous snickering and Twitter jokes poking fun at the program’s (admittedly questionable) premise. Tony Soprano and Don Draper had already infiltrated the country’s nuclear families and business world — did we really need to see the tired trope of the “difficult man” copied and pasted onto the Papacy? Like most viewers, I tuned in to the show’s premiere expecting to see an overwrought, self-consciously serious take on one of the world’s highest offices. Instead, to the shock of everyone, “The Young Pope” wasn’t just in on the joke — it was beating us to the punchline.

Which is not to say that “The Young Pope” isn’t serious. Driven by Jude Law’s bravura turn as the titular Pontiff Lenny Belardo, the show is a dreamy, deeply felt mediation on shared trauma and the power of belief. It just so happens to also feature a kangaroo wandering the Vatican grounds and Diane Keaton as a nun wearing a top that reads “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt.” Under the guidance of a less assured showrunner, “The Young Pope” easily could have collapsed under the weight of its own tonal see-saw. Sorrentino, however, is a uniquely gifted writer, capable of generating pathos and humor simultaneously. When Lenny gives his first address to the world as Pope Pius XIII, he thunders about the all-consuming nature of faith — and then throws a temper tantrum when somebody in St. Peter’s Square shines a laser pointer on him. 

At first glance, a program featuring a chain-smoking, cussing Holy Father would seem to indicate a puerile, anything-goes takedown of Catholicism. To the show’s great benefit, however, “The Young Pope” is not only interested in the Church’s shortcomings, it sincerely invokes the sacred and the obscene in equal measure. This is a show that acknowledges the existence of holy miracles while also recognizing that the modern Church may have some issues with revealing them. The program’s opening credits are emblematic of this split, with a meteor burning through painted scenes of the Church’s history while “All Along The Watchtower,” of all things, plays in the background. 

Trying to get a firm grasp on what makes “The Young Pope” such a great program is missing the point. At once virile and pious, the show defies easy categorization. It could have a heart-rending discussion about salvation one moment, and then a Papal dress-up montage set to “Sexy And I Know It” the next. “The Young Pope” is a comedy and a drama, a satire and a morality play, an intense character study and a portrait of an entire religion. Perhaps Lenny himself sums it up best. Early on in the show, Pope Pius XIII is asked who he is. “I’m a contradiction,” Lenny says. “Like God.” 

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