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The Young Pope: A Ridiculous Premise Crazy Enough To Demand Viewership?

The world of Catholicism, entrenched in striking symbolism and ornate rituals, is frequently showcased in the horror genre. HBO’s “The Young Pope,” which premiered in the U.S. on Jan 15, with episodes on Sundays and Mondays, offers just a small dose of horror with a heap of absurdity. The show is shot like a trippy dream, with a script that veers from dry humor to theatrical drama.

The ten-episode series begins after Lenny Belardo, played by Jude Law, is elected pope. Young and a complete unknown shrouded in mystery, the titular character is this horror story’s villain. Or at least we think so. It’s impossible to tell whether Belardo is a victim who lost his belief in God or if he is a self-motivated monster. At any rate, he is an entertaining, cherry coke drinking, handsome, chain-smoking schemer that right off the bat establishes alliances in the Vatican. One being his rather un-Catholic agreement with the impressionable Don Tomasso, to whom Lenny promises a cardinal position in exchange for information, essentially convincing Tomasso to break his vows as the Vatican’s confessional priest.

Belardo takes the name Pius XIII, which is cause for concern to the cardinals, foreshadowing the new pope’s legacy will be a dark one. An abandoned child, Pius was raised by a nun (Diane Keaton) in a catholic orphanage; we get the feeling that he has seriously unresolved issues. It’s clear that Lenny’s modus operandi is to act alone for his own interest and he is prepared to bulldoze all who oppose him.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the show is that the fresh-faced, seemingly modern Pius turns out to be utterly medieval in his beliefs. Pius declares the church has become too tolerant when he delivers his chilling first speech to a shocked and defeated crowd of onlookers. His first public interaction is not the anticipated loving introduction, rather he uses the opportunity to scorn his followers. “You have forgotten God!” he announces, declaring that his papacy will abandon the warm and fuzzy approach to Catholicism. “You need to know that I will never be close to you,” he says before storming off the balcony. “I don’t know if you deserve me.”

Even when “
The Young Pope” is bad, it’s still pretty good. It’s hard not to be entertained by its outlandishness. When it’s good, it’s far from perfect but is gorgeous to watch. Although uncomfortable at times, it’s hard to look away. Sorrentino, the creator and director, composes shots and manipulates lighting artfully. Each scene is unexpected and lush.

Regardless of the politics and scheming that feel familiar (“
House of Cards,” anyone?), “The Young Pope” offers something unique to premium television: dreamy beauty and larger than life characters juxtaposed with banal humanity. It’s both heavy and light with a plot so unreal in a world we never get to witness. It’s a genre of its own. Sure, it’s fodder for online memes, but it’s also a gorgeous nightmare within a dream. Bring on the bombast, just don’t wake me up.
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The Young Pope: A Ridiculous Premise Crazy Enough To Demand Viewership? Photo courtesy of HBO

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