Why 'The Young Pope' Is the Answer to Your TV-Watching Prayers

Jude Law is the Tony Soprano of the Vatican (and one hot Your Holiness) in HBO's new surreal surprise hit

Meet the Tony Soprano of the Vatican: Rob Sheffield on why HBO's 'The Young Pope' is the answer to your prayers and Jude Law is one hot Your Holiness. Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO

He's hot, he's sexy and he's infallible – meet the new Pope. Jude Law is brilliantly ridiculous in HBO's superb The Young Pope, taking over the Vatican as the megalomaniac Pius the Thirteenth. He's the first American-born pontiff, a Brooklyn guy named Lenny Belardo. The College of Cardinals selects him on a whim; they figure he'll be naïve, photogenic, easy to control. They're wrong.

Law's Pope Pius turns out to be a ruthless fanatic who talks like a mob boss, scoffing, "Courtesy and good manners are not the business of men of God." He struts like a rock star – he manages to sound like Gene Simmons even when he's quoting St. Ignatius of Antioch. But he rules by fear and secrecy, refusing to show his face in public, giving his sermons only by night. In one great moment, he stands on the balcony in St. Peter's Square, under cover of darkness, and thunders at the faithful, "I don't know if you deserve me!"

The series comes from Oscar-winning Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), who clearly learned his theology from vintage Madonna videos – expect lots of rippling red cassocks and goth ambience. Yet Jude Law has the sinister touch to make it a genuinely malevolent thriller. Pope Pius is a holy terror who smokes, swears, demands Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, keeps a pet kangaroo on the Vatican grounds and spins vinyl on the papal turntable. Such a hipster – he yells at Vatican underlings for not knowing who Daft Punk are. He's the former Archbishop of New York, raised in an orphanage by a streetwise nun played by Diane Keaton's Sister Mary, who he brings to Rome as his consigliere. (Keaton sleeps in a shirt that says "I'm a Virgin, But This Is an Old T-Shirt," which gives you an idea of The Young Pope's subtle touch. )

But Pope Pius is so frightening because he's a true believer: an Ill Papa dedicated to the one holy apostolic church and constantly conniving against the political intrigues of treacherous bishops. Even when he goes to confession, the holy man plays psychological war games until the priest runs out of the room in tears. In one amazing scene, Law lays it out for the Vatican hierarchy, ranting about the faith like a blend of St. Augustine and Al Capone. "We've been reaching out to others for years now," he announces from his throne. "It's time to stop." The clerics stare in confusion, but he keeps preaching on. "Brother cardinals, we need to go back to being prohibited – inaccessible and mysterious. That's the only way we will once again become desirable. That's the only way great love stories are born, and I don't want any more part-time believers. I want great love stories. I want fanatics for God!"

In lesser hands, The Young Pope could have been just stylish meme-friendly fluff. It goes way over the top – as a medieval theologian might say, it has an element of credo quia absurdum. Sometimes you wonder if the Pope is about to hop a skateboard and command believers to call him "Your Holy Radness." His theology is very Eighties – he's trying to lead an anti-Vatican II backlash, 35 years after John Paul II already beat him to it. He talks about right-wing dogma and homophobia as if they're ancient Catholic traditions, rather than relatively recent fads. (If Jesus had any problem with birth control, he failed to mention it, and if he had issues with same-sex couples, he never told Mary and Martha.)

But Jude Law makes it all work, because he's got that truly nasty streak of rage and bitterness in him. With his creepy blank stare, he was born to play charismatic psychos, but his pretty-boy looks meant he always got stuck playing babyface lightweights instead. As a movie star, he seemed washed up years ago. But The Young Pope gives him a comeback worth of St. Jude himself, patron saint of hopeless causes. Finally he's found his vocation – playing a gangster with God on his side. Let us pray.

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