By Jim Sabataso
I don’t know what to make of “The Young Pope.” The new Paolo Sorrentino series starring Jude Law premiered on HBO last month amid much ribbing on social media — the name lends itself to parody, and the self-serious trailers made the whole thing seem like a farce.
But this is not a series that is easily dismissed. The series was a hit when it premiered last year in Italy. It also boasts a strong cast of American heavy hitters — Law, Diane Keaton, James Cromwell — as well as numerous supporting actors likely immediately recognizable to Italian audiences.
Law stars as Lenny Belardo, the titular young pope. Lenny is an American — the first ever for the papacy — and an orphan. The series picks up as Lenny settles into his new gig and demonstrates that he’s going to be a different kind of pope. He’s curt and demanding to his subordinates. His first public address is a stern admonishment to Catholics around the world. He even refuses to let his likeness be used in any way, even going so far as to demand his public appearances be lit so poorly that photographs are impossible.
All this makes Pope Lenny (officially, he chooses the name Pius XIII) a formidable leader bordering on villainous. His behavior throws the cardinals and other Vatican officials into turmoil, as some struggle to protect their own interests, while others fear for the future of the Church. There’s a whiff of political intrigue here with a distinct “House of Cards” vibe.
Law brings potent menace to the role as he dresses down cardinals and behaves in ways that make you wonder if he’s ever heard the phrase “What would Jesus do?” Still, there’s a layer of complexity to Lenny. An orphan who grew up surrounded by nuns and priests, he exudes the angry loneliness of a child who’s never found the love he’s sought. His relationship with God is equally complex. At one point, he tells a fellow priest he’s an unbeliever only to immediately recant it — but, man, did it sound sincere.
Keaton plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny and plays the role of surrogate mother. Upon becoming pope, Lenny sends for her and appoints her his right-hand woman and adviser. Keaton’s Sister Mary is a sly character; she’s observant and pragmatic — a fierce woman of the cloth who’s unintimidated by the male-dominated church hierarchy and wears a tee shirt that reads “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt” when she’s not donning the habit.
Cromwell shows up in a supporting role as Cardinal Michael Spencer, Lenny’s mentor, whose sacramental wine has turned into sour grapes after being passed over for the papacy. Cromwell rages and calculates as he watches Lenny from the sidelines.
Despite all the drama and pomp, “The Young Pope” is unexpectedly humorous. There is a campy nature to the show that cuts through all the seriousness. Montages of nuns playing soccer, errant kangaroos and scenes of Lenny slow walking to LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” all add levity and absurdity to the proceedings. Even the opening credits are in on the game; changing each week in dynamic and visually entertaining ways.
“The Young Pope” is not a particularly high-minded or deep show. Despite taking place in the Vatican, matters of divinity and the sacred are not on order. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy here. What it lacks in depth is more than made up for with its bonkers audacity, making for a confounding yet compelling piece of television.
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“The Young Pope” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.