There’s a scene in an episode of HBO’s “The Young Pope” where the Young Pope turns to a political rival and emphatically declares, “I am the Young Pope.” It’s impossible to disagree. The eponymous pope is played by Jude Law, employing a brilliantly generic American accent and a very healthy tan.
As far as popes go, he’s young. Later in the same episode, he dons the Papal Tiara, soundtracked with LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” On the first day of his papacy, he informs the staff at the Vatican that he can’t start his day until someone fetches him a goddamn Cherry Coke Zero. An ordinary Diet Coke will not suffice. He really does smoke cigarettes, and he really is Jude Law, and he really is both young and the Pope; the show does nothing if not find new and creative ways each episode to drive home these very important points.
In some ways, this is a show engineered for maximum internet cachet. When HBO announced it would be carrying a show titled “The Young Pope” and that Jude Law would star, the Twitter jokes basically wrote themselves. And so the initial surprise of actually watching “The Young Pope,” is in the show’s obvious talent for mocking itself. Paolo Sorrentino has essentially created a show that is the butt of its own joke.
For those familiar with Sorrentino’s previous work, the show’s arch tone won’t be much of a surprise. His most recent movie, “The Great Beauty,” is a Fellini-adjacent portrait of debauched sophisticates in contemporary Rome.
In a particularly memorable scene from early in the movie, a performance artist stands on stage before a crowd and then sprints directly into a stone wall. She picks herself up, walks to the edge of the stage, and shouts to the audience, “I hate you!” The audience claps and somebody calls out, “Brilliant!” The entire scene is beautifully shot, as is the rest of the movie.
“The Young Pope” is beautifully shot too — Sorrentino has a genius for coaxing every dollar of the lavish production budget into the camera monitor.
The crucial difference is that while the characters in “The Great Beauty” live absurd lives, the characters in “The Young Pope” serve no other purpose than to demonstrate that the show itself is an absurd proposition.
Aside from the obvious pleasures of hearing Jude Law say things like, “There’s a new pope now,” or the occasional sight of his kangaroo in the papal gardens (I swear to God), there’s not much to keep watching for. The whole series is like a whimsical short film that refuses to end. There are plot lines — will the Young Pope’s extreme new policies ruin the church? Is he actually a miracle-worker? What’s with all the nuns in the Vatican playing sports?
But since the Young Pope himself is such an opaque character, none of it really matters. All that’s left are the wild tonal shifts, which lose their wallop as the show progresses.
Honestly, I started the show expecting to find some solace from America’s current political leadership. This is a show, after all, about a wildly unqualified new leader hellbent on leveraging his power in especially idiotic and hateful ways. But the show refuses to operate in the mode of political satire. And maybe it shouldn’t — clearly, it has some other ambition. I just have no idea what it is, and after five episodes, not enough patience left to figure it out.
I made an honest effort to find some of the most popular Young Pope internet memes in order to share them here, but the show itself is basically a glorified meme. Oddly enough, the most popular Twitter joke was to introduce the phrase “young pope” into a famous song lyric:
🎶i’m a bitch / i’m a lover / i’m the pope / only younger🎶
— josh androsky🌹 (@ShutUpAndrosky) January 4, 2017
If you’re curious, a quick Google search will provide numerous examples of “The Young Pope” memes, not to mention numerous curated lists of these memes from some of the internet’s most well-respected content farms.
“The Young Pope” may not be a good television show, but its knack for producing content is undeniable.