Let me share something that shines a light on what HBO’s new series The Young Pope is: there’s a kangaroo roaming the gardens in the Vatican. I’m serious. Early on in this show, which drips with portentous symbolism, if not actual substance, the newly elected Pope Pius XIII discovers that the Australian government sent him a kangaroo as a gift. His staff is planning to send it to a zoo, but Pius insists on releasing it onto the Vatican grounds. From time to time, the kangaroo turns up again, shooting knowing looks at Pius and the audience. “I know it makes no sense that I’m here,” the kangaroo says with its eyes. “Very little of what happens on this show does. But damn it, I’m here for the ride!” I know that feel, bro.
The Young Pope doesn’t make much sense. Much like Catholicism itself, it’s all about embracing beautiful, deeply frustrating contradictions. There are no easy answers, only more questions and enough “What the fuck?” moments to fill St. Peter’s Basilica. In the end, you have to just go with it, even if it feels at times like going to Sunday mass high out of your mind. And that’s mostly okay. If you let yourself give into its excesses, you’ll be rewarded handsomely. You think the memes cover how crazy this show can be? Be the kangaroo, my friends. Be the kangaroo.
The Young Pope, created by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (Youth) and developed by HBO, Sky Atlantic, and Canal+, is the most bizarre prestige drama we’ve seen in a long time. Jude Law plays the young pope, a newly elected American Holy Father propped up by the College of Cardinals to bridge the gap between traditional Catholic dogma and an increasingly secular world. Originally known as Cardinal Lenny Belardo, he was chosen by powerful men who thought he’d be a puppet. But Belardo, styling himself as Pius XIII, proceeds to wreak havoc on Vatican City, taking an extremely conservative, even medieval, stance on Catholic doctrine, and gleefully alienating believers and priests in the process. Pius, we soon learn, is a monster, armed with an agenda he plans to inflict on the world’s 1 billion Catholics.
Law is transfixing as Pius XIII, playing the role with an unctuous charm that can quickly give way to stunning cruelty and even what looks like madness. He calls himself a contradiction, and it’s true. Here’s a Pope who can rattle off the names of pop-culture icons like Banksy and Daft Punk, and yet he demands the Church roll itself back to its ancient inaccessibility. Here’s a Pope who wears a massive Papal tiara, but only drinks Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast — and says the words “Cherry Coke Zero” as if he’s getting paid every time the words pass his lips. Here’s a Pope who isn’t even sure he believes in God, but is pretty sure he’s more handsome than Jesus. This character feels so tailor-made to be memed that in every other scene, it feels like he’s ready to have “Deal with it” shades descend upon him from on high.
None of these qualities make sense, of course. They don’t even seem to make sense to Pius himself. It’s tempting to see him as the same kind of American madman thrust into office that we saw in November 2016. He’s certainly a narcissist drunk with power and reveling in his own hype. What’s more, Law sells the character with such conviction that there seems to be no limit to the outlandish, halfway-heretical things he’ll say for shock value. But Pius, who isn’t an obvious racist or capitalist, is smarter and more mysterious than any horror-show Trump facsimile. The show is pure pulp, and is entertaining enough in its outrageousness that the spectacle can drown out the show’s narrative problems. And, thankfully, there are no catchphrases.
Unfortunately, The Young Pope is trying so hard to be House of Cardinals, a show no one is asking for. Pius is at the center of a plot orchestrated by Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Cardinal Secretary of State, to ensure he retains power through the papal changeover. That plot saw Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), Pius’ arch-conservative mentor, passed over for the papacy. Joining this duo is Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, who raised Pius after his parents abandoned him. She’s invited to the Vatican to serve as his special counselor as he grapples with his new responsibilities. All three must contend with the young pope’s erratic, unpredictable behavior, and ultimately, it’s up to them to rein Pius in before he and the ever-present threat of scandal destroy the Church from within.
Trouble is, the priestly intrigue is nowhere near as compelling as watching Pius be Pius. Voiello is slimy, Spencer is bitter, and Mary is patient, and all three actors put in turns that help elevate the melodrama and drive the narrative along. But none are asked to fill a room like Law, so they feel diminished, and so does their story. Which is probably for the best, since the action dances around the mystery of Pius’ motives for so long that it strains to keep viewers’ interest.
But the performances are one thing and the visuals are another, and The Young Pope’s saving grace is its surreal, impressionistic beauty. Every shot feels deliberate and meticulously staged to showcase the Vatican’s opulence, but also to expose the absurdity propping it up. Here, you’ll see a slow pan over a priest washing his hands in a bidet, or a scene with nuns playing soccer. The care is self-evident, and the show’s EDM score only ratchets up the insanity. In one scene, during Pius’ first homily as pope, Sorrentino renders him only as a silhouette. It’s genuinely unnerving seeing only a shadow as Pius shouts his fire-and-brimstone message over a crowd of the faithful. “I am closer to God than I am to you!” he declaims. Suddenly, someone in the crowd shines a green light on him, and the effect is destroyed as he tries to swat it away. It’s stunning and hilarious, but there’s no way to look away. The most powerful man in the Church is leveled by a laser pointer.
The Young Pope is a truly ridiculous show, but in a way that makes it ridiculously watchable. Sorrentino clearly set out to aestheticize contradiction, so creating a series about the young figurehead of an ancient religion is a great way to start. That may not make for the most compelling story, but there’s beauty in subverting the sacred in every way possible. In the end, we’re all just kangaroos in the pope’s garden. We might not know why we’re here, but this is a hell of a place to be.