Spring 2017 Review: The Young Pope

23 Jan

The Young Pope

The Young Pope takes us on a ride back to the first dozen years of the 21st century, when prestige TV was dominated by a white middle-aged male antihero struggling to maintain total control over his world as forces beyond his own begin to creep towards him. This model is by no means inherently bad (for any given show); three of the all time best TV dramas came out of it: The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Along with those however, came a horde of lesser shows from the solid to the mediocre to the downright bad, and many, myself include began to tire of this incredibly limiting format which seemed to really focus on a single perspective and seemed to dominate TV way out of proportion to the amount of white middle age males in existence.

Thankfully, although it took a while, television responded in kind. With the ends of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the decline of this type of show is more or less complete; all of the most acclaimed and prestigious shows currently follow different, and thankfully, varied models. Even the shows that come closest have important differences. Rectify’s Daniel Holden is an almost middle aged white man, but his suffering and troubling behavior are due to a likely wrong done to him, rather than his doing wrong to the world. The white male half of the two leads in The Americans, Philip  Jennings, may have committed worse crimes than any of the male antihero protagonists discussed above, but in how he deals with those closest to him, he’s the warmest and most loving. Vinyl resurrected the moody middle-aged male antihero of the previous decade, and flopped like little else has on HBO.

And then, well, there’s Young Pope. It’s not as obvious a rehash of the formula as Vinyl, and because of that it’s probably at least somewhat more successful, but those distasteful elements permeate the show. Jude Law, as Pope Pius XIII, is, from what we know in the first episode, a surprise choice as Pope, unprecedentedly young and American, picked because some of the most Machiavellian power brokers in the papacy believe he would be easily controlled. He isn’t, of course, or this would probably be a less interesting show; but he’s, well, kind of a dick.  He’s mercurial, conflicted, treats important men like servants, treats servants like, well, worse servants, partly to send a message and also partly because it just seems like he likes it. He’s unflinchingly masculine, in the old school way that was premised on nice guys finishing last and the show maybe seems to want to convince us that this is the way he has to be to be effective. He makes everyone uncomfortable, and not just the people he should.

Just about everyone else in the show is male, as might be expected in a show about the inner workings of the papacy; after all women can’t rise to the highest rungs of power in the Catholic church. The primary and really only female character is Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary, whose role is mother figure to Pius; he brings her along with him because she helped raise him as an orphan. Whatever power she has is merely derived from him as long as she’s in his good graces.

Watching the show feels like we’re supposed to be compelled, or at least fascinated by Pius’ s unorthodox attempt to shake a complacent Catholic church from the top down, making the cardinals and priests used to a comfortable existence remember what it really means to be holy men. I didn’t feel that way though, and, I don’t think it was because I don’t care about Catholicism, but rather because he both rubs me the wrong way and I don’t particularly care about any of the characters.

The Young Pope is not without merit. The artiness with which it’s filmed feels occasionally pretentious but also occasionally persuasive and imposing; even as a secular Jew, the decadence of Catholic institutions and dress carry impressive weight. The intrigues of papal politics are definitely potentially fruitful and underneath the posturing is room for some interesting battles of substance and style which are very vaguely glimpsed at.

There is craft here, there is strong acting (outside of some of Jude Law’s shoddy New York accent). There’s enough that maybe over the course of the series, the first impressions of the premiere are misleading and there is more substance underneath. But for a show so hyped, with such pretentious and such ambition, it’s a disappointing first look.

Will I watch it again? There’s a good chance I wouldn’t by myself, but since I watched it with a couple of other people, I probably will again, and I’ll hope it gets better from here.

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