Feb 14, 2017

TV Retrospective: "The Young Pope" - Season 1

Jude Law

As the title would suggest, there's a lot about The Young Pope that is hard to take seriously. The story of the first American pope (played by Jude Law) follows his first year as one of the most powerful religious leaders on Earth. It isn't specifically a dyed in the wool story as the story quickly reveals. Pope Lenny is a conflicted man who comes with demons that haunt him. These are demons of being an orphan who feels slighted by his parent's absence. He wants to shake up the world, but soon realizes the value of religion in people's lives. The series may be too blasphemous for hardcore believers - especially if LMFAO is not in your iTunes account - but presents a new and interesting study of faith that is as uneven as it is wonderfully perplexing. It may not be the most exciting show, but it definitely creates one of the most unique experiences of 2017 so far.
Creator Paolo Sorrentino is known for his heady dramas, most notably for the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. He is someone who is hard to pin down as being of a specific style, let alone someone who would deliver a conventional product. The Young Pope quickly demystifies any doubt as Lenny walks from under a pile of babies to give a speech before the Vatican that is blasphemously against orthodoxy. It is all a dream landscape meant to embody his dark demons, but it also helps to set up the tone of a series that would be closeted about its emotions as time went on. This wasn't just a drama. It was a satire of religious ideals as they conflict with American corporatism. It was also about understanding the guilt of a man who is supposed to be infallible. By the end, there's some sense that maybe Lenny is human after all.
It helps that Jude Law does a great job in the lead role. With his head held high, he manages to make every line sound menacing as well as profound. He is a figure whose idea of power comes more from the pop culture introverts, like Daft Punk and J.D. Salinger. He even drinks a Cherry Coke Zero. The soundtrack slowly backs him up, mixing traditional classical music with contemporary hits that reflect his control of power. Along the way he gains confidence as well as insecurity, and the show becomes a bit redundant in trying to understand what it wants to be. Yet by the end, it is a journey unlike anything else on TV in recent years. It is profound, blasphemous, funny, tragic, and human. It doesn't set out to deconstruct the Catholic Church, but more to show just how it means something different to everyone.
There are many arcs throughout the season that add weight. For a series based around the pope, there's an awful lot of sexual affairs as well as nudity on tap. Even in the dreamlike landscape, there are moments where the presence of sex becomes a deeper metaphor for something rooted in character. As the show turns the Vatican into a landscape of surreal imagery that includes nuns moving almost mystically - even playing basketball - while having a kangaroo running around the premises. While the classic imagery is something comforting, the small changes that Lenny wishes to bestow upon the church become more staggering as time goes on. By the end, he learns to handle his self-guilt while trying to put on the best image before a crowd; suggesting that they should smile and be happy while embracing the duality of life.
Sorrentino's vision is tough to pin down, and it may be better off for it. It may at times be a frustrating, unpredictable show, yet it never feels dull. If the images aren't cracking with life, there's introspection projected through the imagery. The Young Pope even features powerful voice-over work by Law that manages to take his increasingly mature sermons and explores deeper meaning in spirituality. It isn't always seen, and it sometimes is hokey. However, it still has a profound and meditative agenda, and the series manages to relish in the best of its intentions. It's a dreamland that is neither attacking the church nor suggesting that it's flawless. It is a perfect commodity of the struggle religious people face when dealing with their own past.
While HBO bills the show as a miniseries, the rumors about season two more than suggest that Pope Lenny's journey isn't over yet. It is tough to say where things will go, but at least the show has managed to convey so much in its brief existence. It may be a satire, but it's also mature drama. Law gives one of his career best performances, and he manages to even do so while walking confidently through the opening credits to a remixed version of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." This is a show unlike any other, and it's easy to give it points on innovation alone. Still, it managed to stand out as a show with purpose and craft despite a silly title. It may not be perfect, but it's unforgettable at worst.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5 

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