The Young Pope has balls, I’ll give it that. The HBO drama created and directed by the Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, which premiered on Sunday, centers on the newly elected Pope Pius XIII — except he’s not, like a regular pope; he’s a cool pope. A badass pope. A rock ‘n’ roll pope. A Don Draper pope.
Sorrentino clearly wants us to see the Vatican’s vessels of god as human — fallible, flawed, even failing. He luxuriates in blasphemy and relishes the inherent contradictions of a spiritual enterprise run by mere mortals. Like Westworld, another buzzy HBO drama that had the internet foaming at the mouth when it premiered in 2016, it’s easy to admire The Young Pope‘s stunning visuals and willingness to match complex ideas with bold storytelling. But in practice, the series is a bore, consistently substituting boldness for gravitas. If you really want to see a man pontificate angrily for an hour, you can always turn on Fox News. Or CNN. Or NBC. Or you could try sticking your head out the window, chances are some dude’s yelling about something.
The Young Pope is certainly not afraid to be provocative, but that might be all it is. Played with robotic bombast by Jude Law, the show’s title character — the former Archbishop of New York, born Lenny Belardo — was abandoned by his parents as a baby and left at the doorstep of the ruthless Sister Mary (Diane Keaton, playing Diane Keaton in a nun’s habit and her signature round sunglasses).
Lenny was supposed to be moderate pope, a choice that would appease both the liberal and conservative cardinals. But, to the increasing horror of the Vatican City leadership, now that he’s got the pointy hat, the new pope has abandoned all sense of compromise. And despite his age, his views are frighteningly conservative. He has power, and he intends to wield it. He doesn’t want to be a “bridge”; the pope, he reminds the distressed Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Cardinal Secretary of State, is “an absolute sovereign.”
Weeks before Sunday’s premiere, Young Pope memes began circulating online, thanks to the show’s irresistibly meme-able title. But the series itself is a cheap stick of gum that quickly loses its flavor. For the most part, The Young Pope consists of men in long robes whispering in magnificent hallways and gardens, then waiting anxiously for Lenny to summon and berate them. It’s funny at first, the way you might get a chuckle out of a toddler banging on pots and pans with a wooden spoon for about a minute. But the effect starts to wear off after Lenny’s fourth or fifth gasp-inducing edict or brow-beating speech to an underling. A sinking feeling sets in: Are we really about to spend 10 hours waiting for this asshole to lash out at the puny pleb cowering before him? Isn’t that stressful enough in real life?
Maybe Sorrentino is in on the joke; maybe not. At some point I stopped caring if The Young Pope knows it’s ridiculous. Either way, the characters are flat and the dialogue is full of clichés. When Lenny pulls out a cigarette in the first episode, Cardinal Voiello points out that smoking is banned in the papal palace. His reply? “There’s a new pope now.”
At first this is all amusingly hyperbolic. But Lenny’s diatribes get old real fast, and the show soon becomes a familiar tale of a vengeful middle-aged man fuelled by an unhappy childhood. He comes off less like a voice of the people than a spoiled rich kid vaulted to a position of power and yet still whining about getting his way. He’s less Donald Trump than Jared Kushner — I know I’m a cad, but look at my boyish charm!
But Lenny wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Sister Mary has been grooming him for this job since he was a boy, and Lenny rewards her by making her his number two at the Vatican. The show uses his tear-stained childhood to soften his dictatorial style and whip up sympathy for this poor, tortured soul, but the answer to the riddle of Lenny’s pain is as simple as it is clichéd: daddy issues. “I don’t see God,” Lenny explains in another one of his let-me-tell-you-something harangues. “Because I don’t see my father, because I don’t see my mother….No one loves me,” the pope whines. In exchange for his outbursts, he’s rewarded with undying praise: “I see Christ’s reflection in you,” Sister Mary insists.
The show fares better when it deigns to visit the ordinary people who worship the pope. In one episode, Sorrentino cuts to a bus full of happy, singing believers headed to the Vatican to see the pope’s address — blissfully unaware of the nature of the man whom they believe to be their savior. But for the most part, The Young Pope is all too happy to give itself over to its title character, who prays, smokes, berates, and schemes his way through the series like any other TV anti-hero of the past 15 years, but with sillier hats.
Despite all that, the show’s not without its merits. The cinematography is divine — there can’t be too many shots of the cobblestone streets of Vatican City at night, awash with the fuzzy yellow glow of street lamps. And there are occasionally funny bits of kookery that work well enough, like the breathless interview on an Italian news program with a shepherd who thinks he sees the Madonna in his sheep, or when Diane Keaton opens the door to her apartment in a T-shirt reading, “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt.”
But other moments and lines — like when Lenny recalls, “I was praying so hard I nearly shat my pants” — feel designed to push buttons rather than illuminate character or deepen plot. For the most part the show is a slog, more interested in the spectacle of empty provocation than giving us a reason to care about its characters.
Like a lot of pop culture at the moment, it’s tempting to parse the show for real-life parallels and political commentary. It’s there if you’re looking for it, like when Lenny ominously tells Cardinal Voiello after his shocking first address to the public, “They chose a pope they didn’t know, and today they began to understand.” But a more instructive parallel exists between The Young Pope and the post-election chaos that’s left us frantically refreshing our Twitter feeds in disbelief: In both cases, the memes are way better than the thing itself.
The Young Pope airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.