Holy Hell

‘The Young Pope’ Is TV’s Biggest Joke (But Shouldn’t Be)

HBO’s The Young Pope has already spawned a litany of memes and mockery, but in reality the show is a haunting allegory for Trump’s rise to power. (Yes, it’s ridiculous, too.)

What if the pope was young?

That’s it. That’s the premise of The Young Pope. That’s the premise that’s spawned a million memes, and now, too, a drinking game.

You’ve likely heard of The Young Pope by now, ahead of its stateside debut Sunday night on HBO. (European fans of prestige television have already gazed their eyes on the infamous youthful pontiff.)

The show’s title is inherently funny, in contrast to the self-seriousness of Jude Law, titular Vatican hottie, shooting azure daggers with his baby-blue gaze in posters and trailers. The whole package—the title, the premise, the advertising—has become some sort of pop-culture Holy Trinity from which a whole congregation of devout tweeters were born, playfully mocking the show, sight-unseen.

Confusingly, this manifested itself in the impulse to replace song lyrics with phrases relating to young popes. For some reason, the holiest of such rewritten hymns has become “All Star” by Smash Mouth. There are others. Many (many) others.

But song lyrics were not the only memes.

The whole practice suggests a whimsy and cheekiness you might think reflects the aesthetic of a new show that dares call itself, so plaintively, The Young Pope. But you would be wrong.

No, our young pope is very serious. He’s craven for power. He’s despotic. He’s, in his own words, irritable and vindictive. He’s kind of a dick.

And The Young Pope, the show itself, is a rebuke to anyone randy for some Popes Gone Wild shenanigans befitting the meme-ification of Jude Law flitting around all sexy-like in his papal robes in trailers.

It’s a show that is unapologetic about its blunt premise. This really is a series about a young pope.

The simplicity of it would be kind of provocative, especially given the mannered lavishness with which creator, co-writer, and director Paolo Sorrentino (La Grande Bellezza, Il Divo, Youth) crafts this narrative, the narrative of… a young pope.

It’s the kind of blank canvas needed to host Sorrentino’s compelling strangeness, making The Young Pope alternatingly addicting and infuriating, like the most interesting ambitious dramas competing to make noise in the age of #PeakTV.

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But the simplicity of it is also kind of ridiculous, especially in this age of high-concept, ornate storytelling and production—which is likely what spawned so much ridicule.

So what, pray tell (heh), is The Young Pope actually about?

Think of it like House of Cards, but instead of Kevin Spacey it’s a pope.

It’s also remarkably resonant.

Here we have Lenny, who, after becoming elected the new pope at age 46, takes the name Pious XIII.

Yes, the pope is not young young. This isn’t Justin Bieber storming the Vatican—though Lenny’s got enough Bieber-like petulance and arrogance for you to question whether his head is going to fit in that giant pope hat.

He’s in his forties—presidential age—and still has a cute butt. This is Jude Law, after all. And this is HBO. Thus we all have to live with the fact that we popped a boner looking at the pope. (A pope who has a propensity for dropping his robe in front of a mirror to take in his full-frontal visage in all its ecclesiastical glory. Maybe the Bieber comparisons are more on point than we originally planned.)

The young pope is sexy, but he’s not sexual. He’s still celibate, stopping the series short of blasphemy… but also the racy naughtiness that we crave for a prestige cable series.

In fact, the young pope isn’t even progressive. The clergy is actually afraid of just how conservative he is, which is an interesting twist.

Given the prevailing dialogue about a Catholic Church looking toward the future, we might have assumed The Young Pope to be a liberal fantasy in which youthful frustration over Vatican tradition could propel the church. Instead, Lenny, or Pious XIII, wants to take the church back, not forward.

This alarms the clergy chiefly because they had assumed that this young, inexperienced mythos of a religious figure, a man whose celebrity stemmed from rock star-like branding more so than his actual humanity, would arrive at the Vatican as a figurehead to be molded and manipulated by their more seasoned and political agenda. But not so.

Lenny is tyrannical in his desire to be totalitarian, control the image of his position, humiliate his adversaries, and double down on his antiquated, stability-threatening positions.

Unfit to lead by traditional measures, his election to one of most powerful positions in the world stunned the church and its congregants—even more so when, once he arrived in power, he refused to bend to standards, propriety, or even popular opinion.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Stopping The Young Pope short of becoming a horrifying allegory about the current state of affairs in America is the sense of humor Sorrentino gives the series. It’s not overt humor, the kind of outlandishness reflected in all those memes. It’s a sly wit that doubles as commentary on our expectations for the hallowed existence we expect of the pope and the reality of it.

Lenny’s addicted to Cherry Coke Zero, for example. He’s offered a Diet Coke at one point, and calls it heresy. We’re not sure if he was kidding. Chief among his initiatives upon taking his position is improving the poor cellphone reception inside the Vatican. There’s a shot of nuns playing soccer in the courtyard, and one sister in particular could be the cousin of Pelé. The music cues are delightfully absurd.

All of this—the power struggles, the commentary, the tonal whiplash—play against each other for a show that’s ultimately hard to wrap your head around. (Hence a flood of memes that didn’t even bother trying.)

There’s an interesting character study here of an insecure, lonely man, whose ego, daddy issues, and complicated feelings about being raised by a nun played by Diane Keaton—oh yeah, that’s a thing—contribute to an inferiority complex that doesn’t just define his ascension to power, but threatens the world’s largest religious institution as we know it.

There’s a familiar thriller here about power struggle, perception, and deception.

Then there’s this silly little pope opera, boiling down to, “Look! It’s a hot young pope.”

They all kind of fight against each other for a gorgeously shot, kind of ridiculous series that struggles to define itself, the same way Lenny does, at one point bellowing, “I am a contradiction.”

A contradiction, maybe, but one that’s achieved, regardless of how the show does, ultimate validation in the Year of Our Lord 2017: also a meme.