hbo the young pope

The midseason TV lineup this year is filled with a wide variety of programs, and perhaps none is so niche as HBO's new show about a modern papacy. The Young Pope takes viewers to Vatican City and into the heart of the Catholic Church for a look at the beginnings of the first American pope. Although it gets off to a somewhat shaky start, the hilariously non-angelic series becomes something truly remarkable as episodes pass, and The Young Pope could easily become HBO's newest smash.

The Young Pope opens on the newly elected Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), formerly known as Lenny Belardo. who at the age of 47 is the youngest man and first American ever to ascend to the highest position in the Catholic Church. He is an unconventional pope who was elected for reasons far more contemporary than his piety, and the cardinals who elected him soon discover that he is not going to be as cooperative as they had believed when he brings in his friend Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) to serve as an advisor. He butts heads with Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) as he tries to maintain the order of the papacy, and both sides are willing to resort to extremes for the sake of their visions of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) is a wild card after losing the papacy to his former pupil, and confessor Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo) is conflicted between his vows and his duties to his new Holy Father.

The most notable aspect of the new series from the very first scene is just how visually stunning it is in its recreation of the Vatican. The juxtaposition of humbleness and opulence among members of the clergy is effective in building up this fictionalized version of the Catholic Church. Lenny's rejections of certain elements inherent to both humility and superiority work because the show pulls out all the stops to create the contrast. There is a blending of tradition and modernity as well, and any viewers who never expected to see a man discussing the different varieties of Coke while dressed in the garb of a pope are in for a surprise. Throw in the music choices that range from "Ave Maria" to "All Along the Watchtower," and The Young Pope is unlike anything else on television, especially religion-focused programming.

I'll admit right now that I didn't think much of the first episode upon my initial viewing. The opening minutes of the premiere are largely dissonant from the rest of the hour, and so the somewhat bizarre lead-in feels gratuitously edgy and designed to misleadingly hook viewers via shock and awe. The tone and pacing lack balance, and the episode comes to a fairly unsatisfying conclusion. None of the actors particularly impressed me with just the first episode, although Diane Keaton is nearly unrecognizable in her performance as Sister Mary and Jude Law has the perfect classic good looks to convey a pope who is simultaneously conventional and radical. Law's cheekbones look like they come out of a Renaissance painting, but the look in his eye is one that is far from one we'd expect from a pope. Still, despite the aesthetics and Keaton and Law, the first hour just didn't work for me.

hbo the young pope sister mary pope pius xiii

The Young Pope really takes off in the second hour, however, and I believe that the series would have been better served if the first couple of episodes were presented as a two-parter or even a mini movie rather than as two separate installments. Episode 2 pays off on the bizarre opening of Episode 1, and it balances out the tone and raises the stakes in a way that promises ongoing action rather than just Vatican squabbling. All things considered, the series feels like a Vatican City spinoff of Game of Thrones that features less murder and nudity.

If you're not inclined to see the Catholic Church portrayed in an unflattering light, I'd recommend that you check out a different show. If you enjoy the political and religious machinations that apposite HBO dramas offer, The Young Pope could be exactly what you need to get through the Thrones hiatus. The show does take some getting used to, so I will suggest that you at least stick around for two episodes before giving final judgment.

Created, directed and co-written by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope is co-produced by the U.K.'s Sky and France's Canal along with HBO, and it was received well enough internationally that a Season 2 has already been ordered. Hopefully The Young Pope will be as much of a hit on the American side of the pond as it was overseas. It's not exactly perfect, and I can only hope that future episodes continue to improve on the flaws of the first. Either way, it couldn't be more gorgeous, and its binge-worthy intrigue and drama could sustain it for a long run.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating

The Young Pope premieres on Sunday, January 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Take a look at our midseason TV premiere schedule to see what else you can catch on the small screen in the coming weeks.

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