In episode two of HBO’s The Young Pope, a scene begins with a caged kangaroo thrashing about inside a nearly-filled warehouse that has been drenched in an eerily peaceful mixture of midday sun and unflattering fluorescents. A handsome, forty-something man from Brooklyn—followed by a small collection of men and women that he intimidates—opens the kangaroo’s cage, delicately extends his bejeweled hand, and begins rubbing his fingers together. This gesture—whether by magic, coincidence, or act of god—convinces the previously unruly kangaroo to exit its cage quietly. The others, struck dumb, stare at this strange, handsome man. This young pope.
After a months-long promotional campaign filled with stunning imagery and minimal details about its actual plot, The Young Pope is here. And now, two episodes in, I’m not sure what he’s doing, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
For those of you who somehow missed the bass-heavy commercials, stark white posters, and mostly unbearable Twitter memes, The Young Pope is a prestige melodrama about the inner workings of a major cultural institution and the devious, power hungry people who work inside it. There’s an antihero at the center of it all—an outsider—who makes the old guard nervous. What is his end game? they wonder. What is he doing here? Though that sounds quite a bit like the plot of Netflix’s House of Cards, the major difference here (despite being about the papacy, not the presidency) is that last bit. In House of Cards’ first seasons, Frank Underwood’s every move is informed by a desire to become president. But when The Young Pope begins, Lenny—his name is Lenny, by the way—is already pope. The hook is that we don’t know what he plans to do with the job.
Is he progressive or conservative? Is his intention revolution or total destruction? After watching the first two episodes (HBO graciously plans to air two a week over the next five weeks), those questions have no answers. In fact, I’m not convinced they ever will—nor am I convinced Lenny’s journey from young pope to... whatever he becomes (old pope?) is entirely the point. Yes, there is the potential for Grade A melodrama—a fiery, scandalous exploration of the many hypocrisies that plague the most powerful members of the Catholic Church. But we’re not really there yet, and I’m in no rush.
This is a sumptuous-looking piece of television, dripping with the kinds of playful moments and peculiar compositions that creator/director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) has become known for. Because of that, I’m less concerned with Lenny’s intentions than I am enamored by his every action—be it a gentle meeting with a kangaroo or total evisceration of a cardinal who’s stepped out of line. Similarly, I’m less interested in why Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) came to be Lenny’s guardian when he was a child than I am roused by a shot of her arriving to see him at the Vatican via helicopter or amused by a scene in which she, a presumably humorless woman of the cloth, wears an oversized pajama top that reads “I’m a Virgin. But this is an old shirt.”
I’m not certain Sorrentino, Law, or Keaton know what they’re doing with this ostentatious and unusual television experiment, but after episodes one and two (the first of which I have watched twice), I’m certain I like it. The Young Pope in no way resembles the show I expected, but somehow managed to exceed my expectations. And that might be a minor miracle.