A tale of a disruptor that hit American airwaves five days before our current Dismantler-in-Chief was sworn into office, The Young Pope was one of the great vulgaris maximus guilty pleasures of 2017. You came for Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII, the smoking hot pontiff who attempted to drag the church into the 21st century by harkening back to its Draconian 11th-century past. You stayed for the signature brand of insane spectacle that Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth, Loro) whipped up at least once an episode. Should you get bored with the endless court intrigue involving scheming cardinals and backstabbing archbishops, you could still thrill to the lysergic sight of, say, Law crawling out from under a mountain of sleeping babies. Or nuns shooting hoops while a kangaroo randomly hops around the Vatican garden. Or Diane Keaton in a habit descending from the heavens, like the deity she is. It was surreal, sacrilegious and completely within Sorrentino’s Felliniesque sweet spot.
Such an excessive take on power, corruption and lies required an actor who could stand out against the Catholic kitsch and outré visual flourishes. Thankfully, Law was up to the task, dragging on an infinite number of cigarettes while confounding underlings and chewing on Sistine Chapel scenery. It wasn’t his fault that the miniseries ran out of melodrama and steam before its final episode, or that his only real competition for your attention was the pageantry. Clearly, the star needed an immovable object to counteract his irresistible force. Enter John Malkovich.
The New Pope, the sequel/”second season” which premieres tonight on HBO, doesn’t introduce its secret weapon right away — Sorrentino & Co. spend most of the first few episodes re-setting the scene. Law’s Pius XIII remains in a coma after suffering that massive heart attack at the climax of the original series, and has gone from shadowy mystery man to a martyr gracing the placards and sweatshirts of fundamentalist protestors. Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) is still making money moves. Cardinal Guiterrez (Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara) is still licking his wounds over his alcoholism and semi-closeted sexuality. Vatican head of marketing Sofia (Cécile de France) keeps smoothing out various speedbumps. Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), whose baby was seen as a “miracle” and proof of Pius’ divine hotline to the Lord, is now on her own and sweeping the floors at a modest chapel. Her storyline is one of the more questionable subplots of these new episodes; having started as a Madonna figure, the show now shoves her into a role that occupies the opposite side of the spectrum regarding how Catholicism views women. “The difference between a whore and a saint?” a character asks her after she’s compromised her morals in the name of Christian charity. “None.” (Bonus points if you guessed that “Ave Maria” factors in to her fall from grace.)
And after an attempt to establish a benign successor to Pius backfires for Voiello in major way, he and his cohorts begin to look outside their circle for a new figurehead. Which brings us to Sir John Brannox, a former spirit-of-’77 punk rocker turned louche aristocrat tooling around his country estate in guyliner. Once upon a time, his twin brother was destined for the clergy. An accident, which John’s parents blame him for, has left him wallowing in guilt and ennui. But for various reasons, this British upper-cruster is seen as prime pope material, even when he vows to conduct “a doctor’s exam of the church … [to find out] what is physiological vs. what is pathological.” Brannox wins on the conclave’s first vote and takes the name of Pope John Paul III. Now the fun really begins, right?
Kind of. Yes, longtime Malkovichites will indeed get the chance to see the actor indulge in his singular way of drawing out lines and oddly emphasizing syllables, of coyly toying with dialogue than suddenly RAISING THE VOLUME of a conversation in the most heavenly way. Most actors would merely say that they “weep for the inexhaustible imperfection of the world.” Malkovich turns into the phrase into a seven-word soliloquy. (“The man seems to be made of velvet,” one person says of Brannox. Truer words, etc.) Given his newfound power, the pope asks to meet Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone. The first encounter is a study in celebrity awkwardness. The second begins with a tired Basic Instinct, joke then turns into a spirited debate on gay men serving as priests. It’s the actor at the center of these vignettes that makes them feel more substantial then they actually are.
Yet The New Pope quickly runs out of things to do with “Il Papa Punk” and the wonderfully, unpredictable idiosyncratic man playing him, giving him one great speech to speak (we pray you) and a lot of world-weary sighs to sigh, then practically relegating him to the sidelines. It’s a confusing, criminal waste of A-list weirdo talent. Other narratives involving Islamic terrorists provoking a holy war that leads back to Vatican City and a group of empowered nuns fighting for their rights (cue: a tattoo of a Mother Superior with an upraised fist) bump up against Brannox/John Paul III, but to seemingly little effect.
About those cloistered sisters of the cloth: They maybe represent a much-needed dose of reactive, XX-chromosome energy to the proceedings, a sort of middle finger to the overwhelming macho mojo of both the first series and this follow-up. That is, when they are not grinding away in their white gowns to The New Pope‘s theme song — Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl,” a banger that sounds like Billie Eilish if she stole LCD Soundsystem’s synths and cowbells — during the opening credits. “Mixed message” doesn’t begin to describe what’s going on here, and these sequences alone may be dealbreakers for a lot of viewers. There’s enough female nudity on display to make the Game of Thrones creators yell “Basta!” Never has a prestige TV show equated holiness with horniness so doggedly, or made you feel like you needed a steel-wool scrubdown after watching it.
It may or may not be a spoiler to note that said theme will eventually be replaced by a variation of “All Along the Watchtower” that’s all too familiar to Young Pope viewers, and that Pius — who pops up occasionally as a spectral presence early on — begins to take a more active role in the proceedings. (The show takes great pains to note that the man can fill out a glowing white speedo. See: that earlier comment about holiness and horniness.) By the time we get to the Great Pope-off we’ve been waiting for, however, everything feels like it’s simply too little, too late. Which is a pity on numerous levels, the most egregious being that The New Pope retains the formalist beauty and sumptuousness of its predecessor while failing to measure up storytelling-wise. These nine episodes are still some of the most opulent, visually baroque TV you’ll see this side of Hannibal. At the last minute, the show drops in a sequence involving Jesus Christ posing and crowd-surfing that is literally breathtaking. (As with the first series, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi takes the MVP prize.)
But its eye-popping business can’t hide a general sense of emptiness. The New Pope is somehow both overly rich and vastly undernourished, a longform project by a major force in Italian cinema that seeks to take on a centuries-old organization’s modern identity crises one spectacular set piece at a time. It’s ultimately a lot of skin and fury signifying nothing other than offscreen drooling. May somebody or other have mercy on our souls.