The Young Pope’: A Radical Conservative Rules
As much an HBO fantasy piece as Game of Thrones, The Young Pope is a novel exploration of what it might be like for Rome to name an American pope who is embodied by a British actor. The actor is Jude Law, his un-pope-ish name is Lenny, and he arrives at the Vatican with the only person he trusts in the world: a nun played by Diane Keaton.
An avowed conservative who seems also to be homophobic, the new pope confounds everyone around him — except perhaps his mentor, Cardinal Spencer, played by James Cromwell, who observes that “the young are always more extreme than the old.” Lenny — his chosen name is Pope Pius XIII — puffs on cigarettes and doesn’t mind blowing smoke at the niceties of papal decorum and traditions. His arrogance is matched only by his confidence. Will you want to watch 10 episodes about such a man? It really depends on how drawn in you are by the Vatican intrigue crafted by show creator Paolo Sorrentino, and how beguiled you are by Law’s performance.
The Young Pope looks great — the photography is lush and vivid — and I was as surprised as many of the people Pope Lenny encounters by his unpredictable behavior. But surprises, when taken in succession, are only effective for as long as surprise does not become predictable, and by the third episode, I was beginning to be a little impatient with Lenny’s curtness, his summary scolding of the church officials surrounding him. Still, Law makes the most of juicy scenes, such as a moment when he prays to God with apparent impiety, declaring that he believes only in himself, that he is omnipotent. But whenever this pope seems on the verge of going too far — whenever the show itself seems on the verge of going so far that we might abandon our interest in this character —The Young Pope pulls back and gives Lenny a scene in which he redeems himself with a moment of kindness, or a remembrance of his troubled youth, or a flash of comic relief.
Already renewed for a second season, this international production is novel programming for HBO. It’ll be interesting to see if its combination of religion and politics attracts a substantial audience.