"We have forgotten to masturbate!"
So proclaims Pope Pius XIII to the adoring throngs gathered in St. Peter's Square to hear the first homily of his papacy. Yet when it comes to the jaw-dropping moments in the premiere episode of The Young Pope, the Holy Father's ode to onanism barely even makes the Top 10.
Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino kicks off his highly anticipated series with the surreal dream-image of the new pope emerging from a literal mountain of dead and dying babies. He follows it up with not one but two shots of the pontiff's bare ass before we're five minutes in. The smug religious leader then slo-mo struts through a teeming crowd of priests, nuns and cardinals whose multi-colored garb looks might like something out of Game of Thrones' – if they weren't, you know, what Catholic clergy really wear. He has a split-second flashback to seeing a topless woman in his youth. He looks up and hey, there's a water cooler lit like it's a visitor from God. His adoring underlings form stunning tableaux in shot after shot, like something out of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video. He glides to the balcony to give his speech as if attached to the camera, like Harvey Keitel when he gets loaded in Mean Streets. A graphic overlay of black bars slowly spread across the screen, emblazoned with the series' title. His lunatic grin is the only thing that's visible.
Pius XIII takes the proverbial stage to the screams of thousands, arms outstretched like a rock star, grinning and gesticulating like his name was Monsignor Mussolini. Rain clouds are parted with a wave of his hands, and out comes the sun. Then, with a gorgeously old-fashioned zoom-in and drum buildup, he drops that masturbation line, the first explosion in a carpet-bombing campaign of unorthodoxy: Why not have extramarital sex, gay marriage, nuns saying mass? In reaction, shocked prelates collapse backwards in unison like they're in the final panel of a gag cartoon. Panicked priests run through the Vatican halls, screaming for help. Only the intervention of his second-in-command, summarily firing him from the papacy, tips the show's hand that this was just a dream.
But when this young Pope, a 47-year-old American named Lenny Belardo and played by Jude Law, wakes up from his nightmare, it doesn't feel like a cop-out. On the contrary, the twist works like a charm, because everything here – from the writing to the cinematography, the score to the performances – is honest-to-God dreamy. The show does the same thing its title character is supposed to do as the leader of the Catholic Church: It provides a breath of madcap fresh air in a dreary, homogeneous TV season.
Much of the credit goes to Law, who in this opening hour has already crafted a TV villain worth tuning in for. His accent may be American – specifically, it feels like a prolonged impersonation of Vince Vaughn from True Detective's second season – but his attitude is straight out of Bowie. He's less Holy Father than Thin White Duke, a chilly, sardonic, cigarette-smoking aristocrat whose supreme self-confidence helps him command an audience and intimidate lesser beings, i.e. everyone.
To convey the character's monarchial menace, Law and Sorrentino give Pius XIII an instantly unique tic: He'll issue statements – like his intention to serve as a mere figurehead or confessing that he doesn't really believe in God – with deadly seriousness, then retract them as “jokes" the moment his stunned interlocutors swallow the bait. Aside from a razor-thin grin, neither his tone of voice nor his facial expression changes when he reveals the ruse. The message is clear: This man is impossible to predict, and he'll toy with you for sport. No wonder his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), is shown attempting to commit suicide on the day of Lenny's ascension. He knows he's created a monster.
No one else does, though, and that's what drives the plot. Sorrentino creates a convincing web of intrigue and politicking in the Vatican centered around Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the power behind the throne of the last several pontiffs. It's rumored that Voiello advanced Lenny's candidacy in hopes of creating "a photogenic puppet" who'd please adherents of the independently minded Spencer but be far more pliant in practice. Tapping an inexperienced New York loudmouth to run one of the world's most powerful institutions because you think he'll be easy to order around? Gee, what could go wrong?
Indeed, no sooner does the new Pope take over than he reveals he's not willing to play ball. He bullies the kindly old nun who cooks him breakfast. He brings in Sister Mary (Diane Keaton!!!), who raised him in an orphanage, to serve as his consigliere despite their collective lack of familiarity with the Holy See's arcane system. He strong-arms the Vatican confessor, Don Tomasso (Marcello Romolo), into breaking the sanctity of the confessional and revealing the cardinals' sins. He announces his intention to beef up the papacy's propaganda outlets and reclaim the ornate papal tiara from loaner status in America. And in some of the episode's funniest moments, he deliberately humiliates and antagonizes Voiello himself, exploiting the older man's confessed attraction to the ancient Venus of Willendorf statue in the Church's art collection; he ends up pointedly calling for an assistant to end their meeting simply for being boring and tiresome. As he says when he lights up in the papal palace despite John Paul II's no-smoking regulations, “There's a new pope now."
And thank goodness. Much more so than such recent movie-star-goes-small-screen vehicles as Taboo or the star-studded Westworld, this HBO series uses its clout to break the prestige-TV mold, instead of just gussying it up. The camerawork is both stately (those Vatican City vistas!) and playful (that zoom!). The script is genuinely smart, jokes about “gerontophilia" and all, rather than the kind of subreddit-worthy puzzle-boxing that now passes for intelligent TV. The lighting is as sharp as the writing: Aside from making Lenny look like a mad rock god at all times, there's one shot of Keaton's character against white curtains, the sun alternately illuminating her like an angel or reducing her to a blurry silhouette, that we could pick apart for an hour. And Law is a gentleman villain in the Mads Mikkelsen/Hannibal Lecter vein – a sinful pleasure to watch at every turn.
Perhaps recognizing that the premiere feels more like a prologue than a first chapter, HBO is airing the second episode hot on its heels, with the follow-up debuting tomorrow night. The Young Pope is already a blast – who knows what it'll become when the reign of Pius XIII really begins?