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TV Review: HBO’s ‘The New Pope’ Continues It’s Satirical Look Behind the Scenes of the Papacy

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HBO is back at it, giving us a peak behind the papal curtain in “The New Pope,” the follow up to 2017’s “The Young Pope.” Both written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, “The Young Pope” introduced us to Lenny Belardo (or Pope Pius XIII), the youngest and first American Pope. In a role seemingly made for Jude Law (who just might be infatuated with his own male figure), Pope Pius XIII is a narcissist who throws a wrench in years of tradition and behind the scenes maneuvering. “The New Pope” opens with Pope Pius XIII teetering between life and death in a coma and the Vatican searching to find an adequate fit for the new Pope.

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“The New Pope” is a weird, oft-times campy, somewhat satirical look at the inner-workings of papacy as it grapples with modernity, fanaticism and the “cult of personality” when it comes to religious and political leaders (fitting in the political climate of 2020). In this follow up to 2017’s lavish prestige drama, Sorrentino and team dive into the inner workings of the Catholic church while exploring human desires, vices and the fragilities of those in power. Pitch-perfect Silvio Orlando is back as Cardinal Voiello, the Secretary of State, who is still moving like a puppet-master pulling all of the strings behind the scenes to elect a new Pope. His schemes lead to Sir John Brannox, played by John Malkovich, being elected supreme pontiff.

Sir John Brannox or Pope John Paul III is weird, over the top frail character with secrets who you can’t quite figure out. But for Cardinal Voiello, he seems like the ideal fit. But just like with Pope Pius XIII previously, they thought that he would be easy to manipulate and control, but nothing ever turns out as planned. He turns out to be more radical than thought which leads viewers to question the role of the church in the modern era. The empire seems to be collapsing with power grabs from each side all the while there are outside threats (a “fanatical Muslim sect”) coming from all sides. And things get even more tricky when Pope Pius XIII raises from the dead.

Although its hard to tell whether this is a serious take on the papacy and religion, the show expertly makes you question the dangers of idolatry, the complexities of faith in modern times, the superficial trapping of religion and the way power can corrupt. It’s a blurry line between who’s good and who’s evil. Just like in politics, you think someone is naive and malleable but in the end, power always corrupts. The show also delicately plays the modern church and youth against traditionalism and history. In the end, its a story about the people in the background, behind the scenes, who really pull the strings and control the world.

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Although sometimes hard to fully wrap your head around, “The New Pope” is a lush and expertly composed picture of life at the Vatican. There are sacred holy traditions juxtapose with modern, upbeat more ostentatious music. From the title sequence of every episode, the show sets a seductive and hedonistic vibe. The visual contrasts, wide shots and rich colors play on the ornate traditionalism of Catholicism while the actors and dialogue play on the seedy underbelly of religion. The limited series also touches on homosexuality, immigration, pedophilia, gender equality, love, and other issues that are at the forefront of The Church. But in the end, it really just seems like a story of sex, drugs, and religion (and even a little rock’n’roll…there’s a celebrity cameo by Marilyn Manson).

Sometimes off-putting, “The New Pope” won’t be for everyone. But it is a beautifully directed and shot piece of artistry that will make you question your beliefs and where you stand on certain social issues. The acting is top-notch, especially the cast of Cardinals and other behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. Oftentimes over the top (and hopefully way more outlandish than real life), but so visually stunning (with a great soundtrack to boot) it enraptures you makes you keep watching all 9 episodes.

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“The New Pope” season premiere airs on HBO Jan. 13.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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