TV Review: Does ‘The Young Pope’ Know What it Wants to Be?

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Few opening images are as startling as watching Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) emerge from below a pyramid of babies. For a show that has already made itself meme worthy on Twitter, the final project is even stranger and grander than one may have envisioned. The dreamlike pomp and circumstance amount to one head-scratching hour of television. However, is “The Young Pope” any good?

The core plot boils down to American Lenny Belardo (Law) becoming the newly elected pope. Being the youngest person to receive this honor, there is quite a bit of skepticism of such a person taking hold of the Catholic Church. Belardo doesn’t do much to dissuade such concerns, bestowing upon himself the grandiose name Pope Pius XIII. The fun doesn’t stop there, as he brings along Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the American nun who raised him, to help him accomplish his papal duties.

From the first 10 minutes, one views Pius as this grandstanding liberal ruler here to challenge the ancient beliefs and structures of the Catholic Church. An opening speech that turns a rapturous crowd silent in disbelief is one of many tonal moments that veer into gleeful comedy of excess. As the episode progresses and this opening dream digression ends, we learn Pius is quite unlike our first impression. More of a crusading traditionalist than a barn-burning rebel, Pius seems to be cut from the same cloth of the TV antiheroes currently in vogue now.

Much of the success of the first episode has to do with Jude Law’s insane charisma. Selling moments as outlandish as excessive bargaining for a Cherry Coke Zero, Law commands the screen. With his character switching between fantasy and reality, as well as from left to right, Law never gives you a handle on who Pius truly is. The only thing we know for certain is he is an outsider. His motivations are unclear. His beliefs are muddy. He’s trouble, but you still want more of him. Everything is a cruel joke to him, which is seen in his devilish but inviting guise.

Director Pablo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty,” “Youth”) must write the word “more” on his production notes quite often. Every craft element, from the borderline gaudy production design to the soaring cinematography, screams “more.” Think you’ve understood the juxtaposition between the austerity of the vows of priesthood and the luxury of the Vatican? Never fear, there is more where that came from. Sorrentino loves to bask in the five-star hotel nature of Vatican City. It’s pretty, but empty, and you’ll get this point quite a bit within the hour.

Entrusting this story to Sorrentino goes a long way in ensuring the authenticity of this truly Italian story. Other than Law and Keaton, the Americans at the center, it is great to see Italian talent, such as Silvio Orlando, light up the screen. As Cardinal Angelo Voiello, a Church higher-up bent on keeping Pius out of power, Orlando and his noticeably extravagant mole steal every scene with figurative mustache-twirling delight. Rest assured, everyone is playing to the rafters and reveling in every moment of it.

“The Young Pope” hasn’t decided whether it wants to be a good show or a show that is so bad it’s good. Due to this, the pilot exists in this strange uncanny valley between quality and camp. The next episodes will have to make the decision on which path to take. If not, it will be hard for audiences to grasp what the tone of the piece ought to be. Splendor and decadence are fine; however, all that glitters is lost without solid content.

“The Young Pope” airs Sundays at 9:00 P.M. on HBO.

GRADE: (★★1/2)

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