Bone-dry and painfully drawn out, HBO’s newest release The Young Pope would undoubtedly slip right into obscurity if not for one of the miniseries’ certain timely aspects. Starring the age-defying Jude Law as 47-year-old Lenny Belardo, the youngest and first American pope, the series thoughtfully imagines an alternate reality where the Vatican has been turned on its head. A new, cocky pope with no concern for the rules of the most dignified seat in Catholicism? What new fun … if only.
It is almost poetic that five days after the show’s premiere, President-elect Donald Trump, a narcissistic leader with no regard for the dignity of office, will take the highest seat in American government. Perhaps this timing was strategic, perhaps it wasn’t, but all in all it was very unfortunate. For as much as it entices with star power, Roman architecture and fascinating concept, The Young Pope just doesn’t push the envelope far enough. A sorry victim of its time, the miniseries simply cannot reckon with a reality in which every twist and turn puts its own drama to shame.
Admittedly, even without today’s chilling political atmosphere, The Young Pope would not make for great drama anyway. Burdened with heavy monologues and dialogue about religion and tradition, The Young Pope should have used its technical and visual aspects to capture viewers’ attention.
And yet, for a series so deftly plunging into a new world, The Young Pope falls rather flat. What could have been stunning juxtapositions of white and red robes, sweeping views of ancient Roman architecture and experimentation with camerawork simply fade into the same, yellowed shots again and again. Interrupted only by inexplicable swings and upside-down pans in cinematography, The Young Pope looks as boring as its conversations sound.
Despite one jolting homily at the beginning of the first episode, when Lenny advocates masturbation and abortion to a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica, The Young Pope doesn’t say too much that’s grossly irreverent or blasphemous, not to the extent that we would like. And when no one’s talking, there are prolonged silences -— too many of them.
Perhaps in some films, silence can be as rich as a note of music, but here, there is not enough emotion built up or rolling away. And in moments of apparent excitement, as much as an edgy base layer of rock music wants to make us feel, The Young Pope does not excite. We hear the beat drop, but we don’t feel anything change.
Without giving away too many spoilers, the series (or at least the first episode) is heavy on the dream sequence, using this form to experiment and manipulate viewers’ expectations. And yet as fun as it is to shock and reveal, it is perhaps too soon in the series for this shtick. Viewers are still trying to figure out Lenny and his world. It feels unfair, belittling even, to be tricked over and over. And after all, beguiling your audience won’t be enough to keep them interested. It takes real, concocted drama, pent up and beating at the edges and spilling out. The Young Pope just doesn’t have it yet.
Law plays an unreadable, arrogant young pope, handsome and appealing and yet unliked by those in his inner circle. Perhaps Lenny doesn’t care about this, but viewers still don’t know the reason for his disaccord with tradition. The cast is supplemented by a lovely yet out-of-place Diane Keaton, who plays Sister Mary, a nun brought back from Lenny’s childhood in an orphanage.
Just like the sister, Lenny’s past still invokes his actions as priest, slipping under his skin like an annoying tick. Abandoned by his parents as a child, Lenny believes the world is a cold place, where the warmest relationship you can get is with God. But in figuring out what this has to do with his irreverent behavior, we are still left in the dark.
Two installments in, I still don’t know why Lenny is this way — callous, arrogant and wholly believing in the world’s selfishness. What is the root of his disrespect with the church? His character is a mystery, one that bores instead of enticing or intriguing me, and boredom is a high price to ask for viewers to tune in the next week.
All these flaws are artistic ones, and yet the most damning is, of course, the context surrounding The Young Pope itself. Why would we turn to The Young Pope for rule-breaking and romanticized blasphemy when our own political dignity is being blasted in front of us? Truly, the present has made The Young Pope lose its edge, made it less a rumination of what-if-the-pope-was-Jude-Law than a meager attempt to measure up to a reality that already towers over it in drama and conflict.
The only difference between The Young Pope and reality is that in the real world, the stakes are unimaginably higher.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in screenwriting. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.