So, About That First Episode Of ‘The Young Pope’ (TV REVIEW)

[rating=9.00]

After months of speculation about whether or not we were supposed to take a show called The Young Pope seriously, the first episode premiered on HBO last night, and it didn’t answer this question at all. Since the show didn’t waste any time diving face-first into its own weirdness, I don’t believe we should either. So, here we go:

It opens with the shot of a nude infant crawling over a pile of other nude infants, who you might assume were all dead, save for the fact that a few of them would open their eyes and look around. Anyway, this is where we first meet this young Pope, crawling out of a giant mound of naked infants. And we’re only about 20 seconds into the first episode.

The weirdness certainly doesn’t end there, either. The next scene showed the titular Pope, Lenny Balardo (Jude Law), walking onto his balcony to thousands of adoring fans in the pouring rain. As Lenny, the Pope, opens his arms to welcome the crowd, the rain stops, the clouds clear up, and the sun beams down on all. He speaks like a deified populist, talking about how the church has forgotten its followers, and he vows to change all that.

His inclusion doesn’t just stop with a general statement about devout Catholics being brought back into the fold, oh no. He freely speaks about the need to masturbate, the importance of birth control, how gay marriage is good, and even priests should be allowed to love one-another. As the crowds’ roaring adulation slowly starts to mute itself out of utter confusion, three cardinals do a full-on Mr. Furley-style faint in unison.

It’s grounded, Fellini-esque surrealism fused with a cheap Mel Brooks’ sight gag that he’d play for guaranteed laughs. Here, even in the context of a new Pope, a young Pope, announcing his plans to suddenly erode centuries of dogma in the Catholic church, it’s not at all clear what kind of reaction the show was expecting out of that. Which is what made it all so appealing.

Turns out, it was all a dream, but things didn’t suddenly stop getting weird once the show shifted its narrative outside of Lenny Belardo’s dream. It just becomes weird in a different way.

With the surrealism getting pushed (slightly) to the edges, we watch Lenny Balardo feel out the grace and power of his new position, all framed in a soft lighting and tinge of weirdness that echoes some of the masterpieces of Renaissance-era paintings. The narrative peculiarities aside, the show’s lush, magnificent cinematography dutifully elevates what seems like a soap-opera subplot into something truly magnificent.

The Pope we spend the rest of the episode with doesn’t come off as a great unifier willing to forgive the sins of modernity on impulse. It turns out, the young Pope is devious, deceitful, antagonistic, and maybe just a little bit of a sociopath. The fact that he’s even the Pope is a point of contention within the church, namely with his mentor, Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), who first appears on screen wrestling with two nuns in a bathroom who attempt to stop his suicide attempt.

The real mystery behind The Young Pope lies not how he came to be in his position, but how we, as an audience, are supposed to react to this character, or this show for that matter. Even meeting Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised the young Lenny Belardo, doesn’t give us any inkling of where this new Pope’s motivations really lie.

While the show’s clearly saving the mystery of Lenny Belardo’s ascension to leading a billion people for the rest of the season, the portrayal of his character is lavishly fawned over here. We watch him belittle everyone from high-ranking officials to his personal cook with the same kind of gleeful elation. He demands Cherry Coke Zero with his breakfast, and when asked if he’d be content with regular Diet Coke, he declares that settling for less would be nothing short of a sin.

Fittingly, it’s unapologetic in all the same ways its title character is, and gives us no discernible metric to compare it to. The fact that we get such a strong sense of Lenny’s character, but so little understanding about what he believes, may not be enough to draw in repeat viewers. Perhaps the best insight into Lenny Belardo doesn’t come from his dream as a Pope-turned-populist, but rather near the episode’s end, when he lights up a cigarette despite being told that the Apostolic Palace was smoke free. When he asks whose decision that was, he’s told it was made by an old Popes.

With the cigarette in his teeth, and without so much of a hint of irony, he snaps back “Well, there’s a new Pope now.”

All hail The Young Pope.

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