“The Young Pope” is a Dreamy Mess – or maybe a Messy Dream

Posted on January 16, 2017


If the title of the post wasn’t clear: We just don’t know what to make of this one.

That could be a very good thing, since the world of prestige TV is looking awfully conformist of late. We’d automatically welcome any show with a commitment to weirdness as evident as this one. It’s just that we’re not sure if the singular vision behind The Young Pope  (that of director Paolo Sorrentino) is enough to keep us interested and we’re not yet convinced that the show’s oddness is enough to recommend it.

Granted, the critics seem to almost universally love it, but we can’t help thinking The Young Pope is the televisual equivalent of La La Land; a creative venture practically designed to push the buttons of critics (SHOTS FIRED). A charismatic movie star playing a typical problematic and deeply obnoxious white male character with a lot of power? Check. A legendary movie star (Diane Keaton, who is rather fun, we have to say) in a surprising role practically designed to garner her supporting actress nominations? Check. Stunning visuals? Check. Political intrigue and obscure machinations? Check. Long scenes with meandering conversations that could potentially lead to a dozen different plotlines or could just be there for “flavor?” Check, check, and check.

We’re not trying to attribute some lack of perspective on the parts of the critics who sung the praises of this show. There are very good reasons to recommend it (we suppose) and there’s no denying the artistry behind the series. But boy, it sure smells like The Leftovers or Vinyl from where we’re sitting; two HBO joints that both seemed far more in love with the idea of themselves than with the idea of telling good stories (MORE SHOTS FIRED).

If we had to sum up the entire hour, it’s “Assholes in Obscurity.” Shady or unlikeable people wandering around dreamlike scenes that don’t appear to have a point to them except as one long setup for a payoff down the road. It’s possible that payoff could be incredibly explosive, but we kind of doubt it. “Explosive” doesn’t seem to be the point of a show like this one. “Simmering” seems to be the model of storytelling – and that would be fine, except there’s this tendency in the filmmaking to suddenly get very grandiose, either in the composition of the shots or the use of music. Several times in the first episode, a scene seemed to be building to some sort of confrontation or revelation and each time, it just fizzled out and moved on to the next dreamy sequence.

We can’t fault it for lack of audaciousness, though. Any series that opens with the image of the pope crawling out from under a pile of dead babies deserves at least a little respect for not being wishy-washy about its subject matter. And while we found ourselves occasionally frustrated by the overtly dreamy qualities (including a too-long dream sequence that should’ve ended once it became clear it was a dream), there’s no denying we were sucked in from the first image. And Jude Law certainly seems to be having (you’ll pardon the term) a hell of a time playing the former Lenny Belardo. Charismatic, sexy, dangerous, obnoxious and cruel, his Pius XIII has been compared by more than one critiic to the current President-Elect, although we think the comparison can be a too-easy one to make in the current political atmosphere. Even so, we wonder if there’s a large enough HBO audience out there that’s dying to watch a fascist gain absolute power as a form of entertainment.

So is there enough to recommend The Young Pope? We have to struggle to come to this conclusion, but … yes. It’s weird and it’s off-putting and it’s hard to quantify. That may not make the most satisfying of viewing experiences in the moment, but it’s a show that works its way under your skin. We were deeply frustrated by it, but we can’t stop thinking about it.


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