THE YOUNG POPE Review: The Wrong Pope At The Right Time

HBO's latest is off to a strong start.

For the past few weeks, Twitter's been positively lousy with Young Pope jokes, and, really, how could it not be? The ads gave us Jude Law, smoking (both literally and figuratively) in a series of crisp Papal outfits, radiating with sinister decadence and surrounded by a parade of murmuring Vatican City employees, all of whom appeared to be straight-up losing their shit over how edgy this new Pope was. The whole thing smacked of self-seriousness, desperate to scandalize.

Of course we were gonna break its balls.

I'm not sure what I expected from Paolo Sorrentino's new HBO series, but it certainly wasn't the surreal, soap-y thing I watched tonight. Truth be told, I knew I was onboard almost immediately: the premiere opens with a shot of Jude Law's Pope Pius XIII (Lenny Belardo, if ya nasty) crawling out from under a gigantic pile of CGI babies, before transitioning into a sequence wherein Lenny gives a jaw-dropping speech ("We aren't masturbating enough!" is his opener) to the thousands of faithful Catholics who've packed themselves into St. Peter's Square. If you're not hooked by that point, I don't know what to tell you.

Both the pile of babies and the speech turn out to be a double fake-out dream sequence, a telling indicator for what sort of show we're dealing with. The Young Pope is, as we suspected, a bit self-serious and more than a little eager to scandalize, but it's also silly and strange and mischievous, heightened in a way I didn't expect. When it really gets cooking, it falls into an almost hypnotic rhythm that - in conjunction with its meticulous framing and steady stream of religious iconography - pleasantly reminded me of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Oh, yes. I will watch the shit out of this series.

The plot: Lenny Belardo is, as the title suggests, the Catholic church's youthful new Pope. He's standoffish to his staff, dismissive of high-ranking Vatican officials, and claims to have little appetite beyond his dedication to Cherry Coke Zero (all signs point to Pope Pius XIII having plenty of appetites, so let's not take him at his word on that). Lenny's arrogance and total disregard for the rules immediately ruffles the feathers of virtually everyone around him ... with the notable exception of Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who apparently raised Lenny into the priesthood.

Lenny brings Sister Mary in to be his right-hand man (right-hand nun?), one of several unusual decisions which puts Lenny at odds with Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), a preening weirdo who's none too happy to realize what little sway he's gonna have over this new Pope. While Voiello launches an investigation into Lenny's history, Lenny befriends the priest who runs the local confessional and begins pumping him for dirty secrets about his new staff.

If this sounds like highly watchable trash, it's because it is. Jude Law is on fire here, clearly having a ball with a character who's ... what? A troublemaker? Legitimately corrupt? Evil? It's hard to say who or what Lenny is at this point, but I'm definitely curious, and instantly caught up in the Vatican City intrigue the show sets into motion. Lenny Belardo, whose brash attitude and casual upending of carefully-maintained traditions will surely draw comparisons to our forthcoming President, seems both an antihero (in the great tradition of HBO antiheroes) and an all-too-believable worst-case scenario. He is, in short, the wrong Pope at the right time, and I'm absolutely onboard to see where his story takes us.

Admittedly, The Young Pope won't be for everyone. Some will find the entire enterprise distasteful, others will be turned off by the show's surreal flourishes, and I'm guessing there'll be another contingent that simply won't like what Law's doing with the role. That's fine. HBO clearly didn't pick up The Young Pope to rope in the masses; this is one of the network's niche digressions, a series that will appeal mostly to viewers with trashier tastes and - for lack of a better term - kinkier inclinations.

Lenny Belardo would probably love it.