‘The Young Pope’ review: HBO religious drama is visually stunning, but thematically empty

‘The Young Pope’ review: HBO religious drama is visually stunning, but thematically empty

The success of Christian-themed blockbusters seemed to have reached its peak in 2014, the year of such epics like Noah. But that doesn't mean religion can't still be found throughout pop culture. Instead, the ways in which its portrayed and analyzed is evolving. Now we can explore religion and faith anywhere from a Martin Scorsese passion project to animated sausages and hot dog buns from Seth Rogen. 

Or, if you're Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, you could set forth a more sardonic, twisted religious concept in mind: What would Vatican City be like if its leader was the Frank Underwood of Popes? That's the basic, bonkers premise for Sorrentino's first television series The Young Pope, which aired in full in Europe ahead its American debut on HBO. 

The show — which has already been renewed for a second season — follows Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), the American cardinal who's elected as the next Pope, anointing himself with the name Pius XIII. The Pius name, thanks to an earlier Pope, was tarnished by the Papal support for Mussolini, which should give viewers an idea of what Pius XIII has in mind for the Vatican. He's a radical conservative who wants to make the Vatican and its leaders mysterious and inaccessible. True believers most devote themselves entirely to God, and "sin will no longer be forgiven at will." 

The concept is the embodiment of Peak TV: We can now make a show about anything, including a rogue, edgy Pope. With the right execution, yes, The Young Pope could be a compelling, cynical exploration of faith. Unfortunately, the series is more interested in shocking its viewer than providing any thematic depth. But boy, is it pretty to look at. 

The Young Pope doesn't give Pius XIII a worthy adversary — and that's a big problem.

Pius XIII is obviously the focal point of the show; like Frank Underwood in House of Cards, he's a character that's designed to toe the line between protagonist and villain. This works for House of Cards because Underwood is given legitimate antagonists in each season that attempt to undermine him. (Plus, he didn't start off as POTUS, he had to work to get there.)

It's difficult for Pius XIII, however, to exude the same feelings because he's always in control. The closest we get is Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), a longtime member of the Vatican who's well-versed in its politics; he helped get Pius XIII into power because he thought he could be manipulated, but was sorely mistaken. But any time Voiello has an advantage over Pius XIII, he's immediately undercut. 

For example: Voiello convinces a devout Catholic woman — caught cheating on her husband, a member of the Swiss guard, by Voiello — to try and flirt with Pius XIII. Voiello gets the evidence he needs (Pius XIII touches her breast at her behest, and Voiello gets a picture), but backtracks on the Pope's saintly response to her advances and later confesses to his scheme, ashamed. Pius XIII, meanwhile, seemed cognizant of the blackmail the whole time, in turn, emasculating Voiello during his Papal address to the cardinals. 

That's The Young Pope in a nutshell: Pius XIII always has the upper hand, and after a while, it's exhausting and repetitive to watch him berate and abuse his subordinates. His glaring weakness is an abstraction, rather than something tangible: the vision, and memory, of his parents abandoning him to an orphanage. That's great context for the character, but you can't make an adversary solely out of an idea. 

The show can't decide whether it wants to be a dark comedy or a drama.

Sorrentino has a lot of fun with The Young Pope, and its cynicism often goes hand-in-hand with the show's dark, sardonic humor. Case in point: Pius XIII prepares what ends up being a chilling Papal address to the cardinals, but the changing montage before is set to LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It." 

But there are moments in The Young Pope where the satire is a tinge too severe. In one scene, Pius XIII gleefully informs an elderly cardinal that he's going to reassign him wherever the man points on a globe. His finger lands on the west coast, near California, but Pius XIII declares his new home will be in Alaska. The cardinal will enjoy the cold and isolation he tells him, a wry smile spread across his face. 

Pius XIII also offers to expunge a head of the Congregation of the Faith on the grounds of his homosexuality, which the man admits to the Pope after he's asked to be truthful. These sequences speak to a show that's seeking out a shock factor and perverse laughs, rather than anything substantive. 

It also begs the question: Just who, exactly, is The Young Pope intended for? Its depiction of a fictitious Pope and his ultra-conservative values would seemingly alienate and offend religious viewers, while the extent of its "edgy Pope" premise might not be fully grasped by the nonreligious. Interestingly, its controversial portrayal of the Pope hasn't been addressed by the Vatican, whereas the official Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano blasted previous negative portrayals of the church like The Da Vinci Code

Still, The Young Pope is one of the best looking shows on television.

For all the show's narrative pitfalls, however, The Young Pope is a visually captivating series. Sorrentino makes excellent use of his $45 million budget. The opulent rooms in the Vatican, its lush courtyards and the streets of Rome all come to life whilst reflecting the show's tone, be it Papal sycophancy or vindictiveness. 

In The Young Pope's most engrossing sequence, a newly anointed Pius XIII gives his first address to the anxious followers. The Pope wants to raise his divine mystique keeping his face hidden from the public, citing artists like Banksy, JD Salinger and Daft Punk as figures that achieve a near-transcendental aura. 

To that end, it's the haunting silhouette of Pius XIII that addresses the people, echoing the conservative values that some cardinals saw glimpses of, confirmed to the public en masse. When an onlooker shines a green laser at Pius XIII, he angrily scolds the crowd for its impudence before storming off. On queue, a bolt of lighting pierces the sky, leaving the crowd in a torrential downpour. 

It's hypnotic stuff from Sorrentino, who deserves awards show recognition for the set pieces and cinematography, if nothing else. 

Of course, it's very relevant going into 2017.

It's always interesting when a show, despite its flaws, soars to relevancy thanks to some fortuitous timing. The Young Pope is no exception. After all, it's about an inexperienced, fanatical and contradictory leader who unexpectedly takes a seat of power, much to the dismay and terror of his peers. He's more than willing to tear down the foundations of the establishment he presides over, eschewing logic for childish bravado. 

Now, why does that sound familiar

The Young Pope premieres Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.