Welcome to the inaugural edition of Mic's TV club! In this weekly feature, senior arts writer Kevin O'Keeffe and arts writer Miles Surrey will watch an episode of a TV show with no regard to how familiar we are with it. The next morning, we'll dissect it in a conversation with one or two other Mic staffers. This week's show: HBO's The Young Pope, with guest Eric Eidelstein.
Kevin O'Keeffe (KO): HBO took the rare step with their new, meme-friendly series The Young Pope of airing the first two episodes of the season back-to-back: the series premiere Sunday, then the second episode Monday. (In Italy, the episodes aired two a night.) Your mileage may vary on whether that was a good move or not.
The episodes do serve as something of a two-parter: We meet Lenny Belardo, now Pope Pius XIII, in the early days of his papacy, literally disrupting the patriarchy. He's a rebel in pope's clothing — or so it seems, what with his eccentric demands for Cherry Coke Zero and to know all the secrets of the cardinals. It turns out he's actually quite conservative; his first papal address, discussed throughout the first episode but not given until the second, demands total devotion to God from Catholics.
It's an interesting idea, but I ultimately found the episodes tonally frustrating. Creator Paolo Sorrentino is a film director who understands how to create beautiful images, but I can't tell you the first thing of what he's trying to say with this show. Miles, you made a similar point in your review — what did you think of these two installments? And was airing two a smart move?
Miles Surrey (MS): Bless up, Kevin, The Young Pope is finally on TV! It feels like it was eons ago when the show became the first great meme of 2017, and I'm really curious to see how viewers in America (The Young Pope's already aired in Europe) respond to it. Because yes, it's all over the place.
Matt Zoller Seitz touched on this in his review for Vulture, but at times The Young Pope feels like it's five or six shows at once. I agree, and to put it another way, the show likes to go back and forth between being a dark comedy and a prestige drama. But you can't have it both ways, no matter how young this pope is!
I do, however, think airing the episodes back-to-back — at least for the first week — is a good idea, mainly because both episodes focus on Pius XIII's papal address. (There's the dream one in the premiere, then his actual address in episode two.)
They're fascinating to look at alongside each other, because on one hand, you basically have Pius XIII's nightmare in the premiere when he comes off as an extremely progressive pope in his dream, one who's cool with sex and stuff — much like some of the memes that posit if this pope will, in fact, fuck. Then there's his actual papal address, my favorite scene in The Young Pope, which is equal parts hypnotic and terrifying. This is a radical, conservative pope who wants to make the Vatican great again. How timely!
Kevin, you're probably the biggest Young Pope hater I know, and I fall somewhere in the middle because it's a perplexing show, but I really, really love the memes. Eric actually likes The Young Pope, so I'm guessing you were a fan of the first two episodes?
Eric Eidelstein (EE): Thanks for passing me the Mic, Miles. (I suck.)
It's weird because, on the surface, there's nothing about The Young Pope that should work for me. I'm not a fan of House of Cards — which, as James Poniewozik points out in his New York Times review of the series, is the closest comparison that could be made to the HBO series — and in general I'm usually not attracted to the sensational, or anything that could be described as "style-over-substance."
Nevertheless, two episodes in, I've been left, as the kids say, "shook" by our infant pope. I'm beginning to wonder if it's because, as a Jew raised around few Catholics, I've always found the Church and the Vatican to be kind of cartoony. Like, the IRL pope wears a funny tall hat, so when I see Jude Law in a white sun hat that he may or may not have stolen from Lady Gaga's Joanne cover art, I don't see why it's that much crazier? I've found it helpful to view the series as a piece of absurd theater, one that may — in its few moments of sincerity — reveal a really cynical take on contemporary faith: good branding, a decently attractive face, and a giant ego could inspire all sorts of worship.
I like the idea that the young pope may not really believe in God, may be using God as a tool to push forward his agenda. I like the idea that the young pope is enough of a narcissist to compare himself to Daft Punk and Banksy. I like the idea that the whole series is about performance — the way he demands his Diet Cherry Coke, reduces the cardinals serving him to silence and, in the gorgeous scene you point out, Miles, makes the rest of the world scratch their heads. Like the show itself, "meme-able," you call it, Kevin, this pope is all about hype, and so far I've bought into it.
The IRL Pope wears a funny tall hat, so when I see Jude Law in a white sun hat that he may or may not have stolen from Lady Gaga, I don't see why it's that much crazier?
KO: I like this idea of the papacy as cartoonish, Eric, if only because it's so sacrilegious it's delicious. Indeed, complete with his wide-brimmed hat that would look more appropriate in black and on the head of a Brooklynite, Lenny/Pius feels like a caricature. Which is why it bothers me that the show itself seems to buy into what he's selling so hard.
This is the same problem I have with House of Cards, which Eric wisely drew comparison to: The Young Pope seems to believe in its titular character. It's hard for me to believe we're supposed to see him as a ridiculous figure, because Sorrentino's camera seems deeply in love with his largesse. Yes, he gets dressed to "Sexy and I Know It" in a much-mocked scene from later in the series. But not five minutes after that, he's back to thundering at his cardinals as the camera watches in awe.
House of Cards does the same thing. Sure, theoretically, Frank Underwood isn't a good dude. But god, how awesome, the show seems to be saying, constantly lingering on his every word as he monologues to the camera. His comeuppances are short-lived, while his victories grow season by season. I'm worried the very same will happen with The Young Pope — although at least in this case, there's nowhere for him to go but down.
Suffice it to say I won't be tuning in for the rest of The Young Pope. The series already aired in Italy; if I'm dying to know what happens, I can always go look it up. Miles, I believe you said you're in it for the long haul?
MS: Yes, I will be. This is because I am frustratingly anal about television shows and one has to be especially bad for me to not watch it in its entirety, but also because I'm really curious to see where The Young Pope heads in the last five episodes (having seen the first five already via screener).
I enjoy the House of Cards — or, if you'll grant me, House of Cardinals — comparisons, but at least the Netflix series has some direction. The Young Pope seems rather aimless, it's inherent purpose is about as pointless as the Vatican gardens inexplicably having a kangaroo inside of it that occasionally has staring contests with Jude Law.
The show has already been renewed for a second season, so I'd like to think there's some endgame in sight that we're just not privy to. I could eventually lose patience, but it has my attention for now — if only for the endless Young Pope memes that will surface in the coming weeks.
Eric, I think it goes without saying that you will be watching The Young Pope, kangaroos and all?
EE: It does go without saying, yes, Miles. Just for the kangaroo.
I will continue to follow the young pope and his papacy. I feel like I owe it to him, and to Diane Keaton, who I believe is one of the more interesting parts of the series. I look forward to learning about her motivations, her relationship with this narcissist of a pope and what her role in the Vatican will become.
Nevertheless, I will admit that The Young Pope is a series that I could definitely see growing stale. It demands a lot from its viewers in these early episodes, and if it can't maintain its momentum, well, it'll grow tedious. I believe that's what happened with House of Cards after its first season.
That's another thing about hype, perhaps a negative thing: It doesn't last.