The New Pope on HBO is even better than The Young Pope. And The Young Pope was spectacular.
Your mileage on this series and its predecessor may vary, but it shouldn’t. More approachable than David Lynch’s works, it makes sense that both of the Pope series are hailed as being Lynchian, particularly in quirkiness of tone — not so much in aesthetics. Writer and director Paolo Sorrentino, absolutely brilliant, tackles an eclectic set of ideas, though, not least of which are some brave thematic territory paired with the greatest needle drops in recent television.
But let’s get one thing straight: David Lynch influence or no, this show is fucking weird.
2017’s The Young Pope — sometimes derisively called “The Hot Pope” long before there was a “hot priest” on television — centered on Jude Law, the New York priest Lenny Belardo, becoming — you guessed it! — the pope. He transforms early, so to speak, into Pope Pius XIII, drinks plenty of Cherry Coke Zero, smokes a lot of cigarettes, hangs with the mother-figure nun played by Dianne Lane, and eventually falls down in the last scene of the show of a heart attack. By the way, there’s a kangaroo. Just roll with it. Hopefully it goes without saying that there are a plethora more of confounding, meaningful moments happening in between it all. And by meaningful moments, I mean that he quite likely preformed two miracles. Catholics near and far view him as a living saint, all of this in spite of his austere interpretation of their religion.
This year’s The New Pope, more of a sequel than a second season only in name, finds Pope Pius still in a coma. What to do? The leaders of the Catholic church opt for another pope as Pius is likely either to die soon or to lay in a coma for the rest of his days. The chances of his awakening are nil. In comes John Brannox, soon to be Pope John Paul III, though there are some twists. As is the show’s wont, there are zigs and zags before the final prayer is answered.
If that description sounds stuffy and straightforward and all too pope-y, know that the show itself is a lot (a lot!) of fun. In fact, I’m not so sure this show is about popes at all.
First of all, The New Pope posits all of its incongruous elements with the most exquisitely detailed shots since Lawrence of Arabia; in this case, substitute the beauty of Rome with the desert. Many of the shots are framed with the characters distinctly apart with a mesmerizing, overwhelming amount of grandeur in the background. It feels like miles between them. All of this splendor creating chasms between the characters serves to juxtapose the ugliness of the two on screen or the pain within them that they can’t voice even as they stand face to face in the foreground of the Vatican’s wonder.
Praise be, too, to the writing. Each plot line evolves slowly but never banally. Every line vibrates with two or three meanings. Credit, too, to the actors who leave so much room for interpretation with their readings. (When the amazing Cardinal Voiello complains, “Do you know what is so awful about these endless battles over rights? There is no room left for poetry,” he’s not talking about the show.) Sorrentino still finds a way to write with clarity even if there are levels compacted into the dialogue. Take the first season where no characters act how expected: Jude Law plays Pope Pius as walking a fine line between cruel and caring, all dependent upon his interactions and with whom. And though more youthful than previous heads of Rome, he interprets the religion much more strictly than the bishops believed he would. At first, it’s easy to believe he’s atheist since he claims that “[t]hose that believe in God don’t believe in anything.” It’s only later that this makes more sense.
With the addition of John Malkovich playing the “new pope” in a unusually tempered fashion for him, the show boasts fine acting.
But the best of The New Pope lies in its thematic developments. It manages to take into account so much of humanity. Never mind if you’re not Catholic. The connection of religion is obvious and expected, but it digs into what makes people believe, how much worldly desires are blurred (and sometimes the same) as the spiritual. It’s a show that treats sex and suffering in the same breath; grief and power are regarded as interchangeable. Most of these play out in quiet meditations. It’s masterful.
What The New Pope says about all of these lessons on us are in the eye of the beholder.
But that eye would have to watch first.