There’s an ideal blend of camp and genuine greatness that short-run prestige television is capable of reaching. The best example from the past year was FX’s The People Vs. OJ Simpson, which paired the pitch-perfect work of Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown with the giddy absurdity of David Schwimmer playing the scion of the Kardashian clan as a man obsessed with calling OJ Simpson “Juice.” From scene to scene, the show was by turns hilarious and moving, and that blend proved to be hyper-watchable. It’s a more grounded approach to how HBO threw some sex and cliffhangers into the dense fantasy world of Game of Thrones and made it into the biggest hit on television. The Young Pope promises a similar blend almost to a farcical degree.
The show takes place in the days after the selection of a new pope, Pope Pius XIII (unlucky!). He’s formerly Lenny Belardo, and he’s not only quite young (duh) but also the first American pope. It’s also the work of one of Italy’s most famous filmmakers, Paolo Sorrentino, who won an Oscar in 2013 for The Great Beauty; he's also behind the far too campy Sean Penn vehicle This Must Be the Place. Here, his pairing of camp and import is almost too obvious. Pius XIII is a pope, but he’s young. The jokes about a rebellious teen pope write themselves (or, more accurately, are painstakingly handcrafted by assholes like me on Twitter). Underneath all of this joking was a fundamental assumption: The Young Pope was probably going to be kind of boring. Despite its name, a prestige show about politics in the Vatican was likely to suffer from the self-importance that the worst episodes of House Of Cards display.
Fortunately, The Young Pope is way weirder than House Of Cards. Sure, you get a good amount of Jude Law’s pope butt, and smoking pope, and hyper-particular caffeine swilling pope, and the pope saying, “there’s a new Pope now.” That’s all great and campy fun. But you also get nuanced performances from veteran Italian actors, a James Cromwell who, as always, plays James Cromwell, and Diane Keaton as a newly powerful nun with a secret. But more than that, you get genuine weirdness. There are dream sequences inside of dream sequences, and surreality creeping into the edges of the frame. You also get the pope listening to a magic radio.
The whole package unwraps itself slowly. Rather than a dynamic title sequence like most HBO shows get, The Young Pope gets a slow tracking shot through the Vatican set to an instrumental version of Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." Seven minutes unfold before the pope starts talking, and even more time elapses before he has a real conversation with anyone. And when he does, the conversations unfold at a pace that’s more typical in the theatre. Scenes last minutes and allow massive power shifts to unfold slowly, and through dialogue. HBO loves slow talky scenes to the point where their tagline, “it’s not TV, it’s HBO,” is basically promising slow and talky scenes; but rarely in recent years have they been as carefully constructed as they are in the pilot of The Young Pope. And even though I personally don’t give a shit about the Vatican, I was rapt by The Young Pope playing the old Cardinals as if they were characters in an Edward Albee play.
So I guess The Young Pope works, or at least, the pilot does. It’s got great performances and a genuine air of mystery. It also has the silliness of Jude Law in a pope hat demanding a Cherry Coke Zero and calling the offer of a Diet Coke heresy. Because our present moment invites larger allegorical lines to be drawn to current events, I have to say this: I don’t think The Young Pope works particularly well as art about Trump. Sure, there are moments of populist rhetoric bellowed by an outsider, and meditations on power from both the Pope and his adversaries within the Vatican. But I think the questions that The Young Pope asks about power are more abstract, and that tethering them to Trump’s particularly hideous version of a power grab neuters what the show is really about, and removes any joy that could be had from watching it.