Descending from the heavens in 2016, The Young Pope was one of the most singularly strange things to hit TV over the last decade. When marketing for Paolo Sorrentino‘s Vatican-set drama first plastered the sinfully attractive Jude Law front-and-center, the internet drove straight down the “hot Pope who fucks” route. But in Law’s Pope Pius XIII, Sorrentino delivered the unexpected, a Pope that aggressively did not fuck, but instead plunged the Catholic Church into an age of extreme devotion, idolatry, and conservatism. It was also, as glimpsed through Sorrentino’s auteristic lense, very weird. Pius XIII made a devoted kangaroo friend, almost crashed an airplane through sheer faith, performed an actual miracle when he feverishly prayed a child into a local woman named Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), promptly dropped that same child on its head, and, in the end, suffered a heart attack on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was a season of television simultaneously mystifying, moving, hilarious, and occasionally infuriating, one that almost certainly didn’t need a follow-up. But once again, Sorrentino only knows how to work in mysterious ways. The New Pope is here, gorgeous, audacious, confusing, and shockingly sexy. After watching all nine episodes, I’m still not sure if Sorrentino managed to bottle his many ambitions into anything cogent, but God bless this sumptuous mess all the same.
Directed entirely by Sorrentino, who co-wrote the season with Umberto Cantarello and Stefano Bises, The New Pope picks up nine months after its predecessor. Pius XIII is still in a coma—the nun in charge of his sponge baths can’t help a quick self-serve after every session, a very relatable start—and the Vatican needs a new leader. Their first pick, the easily-manipulated Cardinal Viglietti, seeks to establish a Church open to refugees and returned to its charitable, impoverished roots. Naturally, he’s dispatched by the Vatican’s corrupt upper echelon, led by the Machiavellian Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando, fantastic once again). Their second choice is a British aristocrat named John Brannox (John Malkovich) known for writing a centrish manifesto in his youth. Brannox, a flamboyant presence with secrets of his own, navigates the den of snakes known as the Catholic Church while Pius XIII still putters away, comatose, in a Venice hospital bed.
Malkovich carries the bulk of the show’s episodes and absolutely devours the role. His John Brannox is a laid-back, oddball showman, with Malkovich adopting Peter Dinklage‘s terrible Game of Thrones accent but on purpose. When we meet him, he’s adorned in purple velvets and eyeliner, like someone preparing for a Joker audition by listening to 30 Seconds to Mars. After trading that in for papal garment, Malkovich still works quirks and tics into the character, like always pronouncing “issue” like “issthue.” It’s a joy to watch, but unfortunately, we never quite dive into what Brannox’s deal is. In-story, the character is understandably a placeholder for the more dynamic Pius XIII, but it shouldn’t feel that way from the audience’s perspective.
That’s indicative of The New Pope‘s ultimate weakness, overall. In terms of pure sight and sound, the show is an aesthetic miracle. Sorrentino loves to swoop cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s camera through sets so detailed and immaculate you wonder how HBO broke the Vatican’s staunch camera rules, rooms that are all complex tableaus and chessboard black-and-white floors that stretch for football fields. (Production designers Ludovica Ferrario and Eugenia F. Di Napoli deserve a shout-out, both here and at every awards show possible). Musically, there isn’t anything as bold as The Young Pope‘s LMFAO needle-drop, but it still swings wildly between haunting orchestral strings and genuine club bangers. The result is dizzying, but a thrill.
But The New Pope often meanders in its excess too long without staying put. It’s less a story than a sermon with too many subjects, taking on greed, and sex, and faith, and corruption but only in general, arms-length terms. Much like The Young Pope, the structure of The New Pope actively works against expectations built from American TV. (Not surprising, considering it’s a Sky Atlantic co-production from the mind of an Italian Oscar-winner.) There’s no mystery box to solve, no clear protagonist or antagonist, and at every place your normal HBO drama would zig-zag, The New Pope either plows straight ahead or stops completely. It’s refreshing as hell, but you also want that story promised by the title, that push-pull between Brannox and Pius XIII, something the show only seems tangentially interested in.
But much like a stroll through the actual Vatican, the wallpaper is so damn engrossing you almost don’t care where your feet take you. There’s simply nothing as unabashedly odd as The New Pope on TV. Occasionally it’ll just throw itself entirely into overindulgence for overindulgence’s sake; when Pius XIII does re-emerge, it’s through a dream/vision/shared hallucination of the astoundingly ripped Pope emerging from the ocean in a speedo, striding through a procession of bikini-clad women to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” riff. The opening credits of the entire show is a crew of cloistered nuns throwing the hell down to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl“, a pulsating neon crucifix illuminating them in reds, yellows, and blues. It’s wild, but it’s also a pretty clear summary of The New Pope‘s thesis. After all, what’s the difference between faith and abandon?
To quote a sermon from Pius XIII himself, deep into The New Pope: “You know what is so beautiful about questions? It’s that we don’t have the answers. In the end, only God has the answers.”
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The New Pope premieres on HBO on Monday, January 13th.