The Young Pope (HBO)
Premiered January 15 at 9pm
I tuned into this pilot not knowing what to expect after hearing about this show back in October when it premiered in Italy. In addition to being a truly global coproduction, it’s also the first foray into television for director Paolo Sorrentino, who won an Oscar for “The Great Beauty” and then made “Youth” in 2015. You’d expect a certain artistry from him in any project that he makes, and that was certainly on display during the first half of this debut episode. After that, this present-day imagining of what it would look like to have an American pope got way too casual for my tastes, infusing what I guess was supposed to be humor into a previously dramatic narrative. It’s hardly a time to be championing the idea of being American, but I do think that this portrayal of how slick, unsophisticated, and entirely self-involved an American would be in such a place of power is relatively offensive. The initial scene in which the new pope tells his adoring audience that maybe they should be open to things that go against the principles of the church was cool because it represented a potential new take on what it means to be a religious authority, but that was just a dream. Still, a man who can have such dreams and who ends the episode by joking about not believing in God is immensely unbelievable as a character, and his outright humiliation of the man who is supposed to be his closest advisor underscores him as a terrible person. I like Law but don’t like his performance here, and Diane Keaton is just as unappealing. There’s plenty not to like about this show, and the plot direction it took over the course of the first hour doesn’t entice me at all.
How will it work as a series? Who the hell knows? I suspect that, rather than actually getting to any of the papal business he is supposed to be administering, Pius is going to spend more time ruining relationships with important people and showing just how uncivilized Americans can be when imported into the Vatican. I have no interest in seeing that.
How long will it last? Apparently it took three years to film the first season, and I’d think you need one hell of a return on investment to ask for more of that. Well, it scored its original Italian network its highest ratings ever and already earned a renewal. I think that three seasons is probably what it will get for creative and budgetary reasons, but this show, which earned decent reviews in the United States, does have a promising future for reasons I can’t begin to understand.
Pilot grade: D