There are a lot of things that drew me to The Young Pope when it premiered on HBO three years ago. Jude Law, first and foremost, but also how the show oozed with style (above just all the “this pope fucks” memes and whatnot), and how creator/director Paolo Sorrentino promised a sort of winking irony and satire with how he handled the papacy and themes of religion and power at large. But more than anything, Sorrentino seemed to have his finger directly on the pulse of current events. Despite the show being conceived years prior and airing in Europe in the fall of 2016, it seemed to be almost predictive of how that fall turned out for American politics. The idea of a populist, megalomaniacal narcissist and outsider infiltrating a sacrosanct institution and, on purpose or not, upending it and tearing it down from within may seem quaint after nearly an entire term of trump (and to be fair, Lenny Belardo is certainly no donald trump), but at the time it was brilliant and prescient. I’m still not even sure of Sorrentino did it on purpose, and yet it all over-delivered.
So, naturally, I couldn’t be more excited to see what Sorrentino had up his sleeve for the long-anticipated sequel series, The New Pope. A direct sequel to its predecessor, the premise of the show involves Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII, born Lenny Belardo, interacting with the pope who replaced him, Pope John Paul III, played by John Malkovich. The trailers have been pretty vague and even after the premiere it seems unclear how that will play out, as Lenny starts the show in an induced coma and in need of a heart transplant. This unprecedented situation of a pope lying somewhere between life and death sets up the premise for this new miniseries, as the Cardinals must choose a new pope, one who will straighten things up and fix the perceived problems with Pius’s tenure and get things back to normal.
However this isn’t immediately thrust on the shoulders of Malkovich’s character, in fact he only shows up at the very end as a compromise between cardinals. In fact, the show decides to take an extended detour before landing on Cardinal John Brannox as the heir to Pius’s throne, and that detour winds up being a hell of a ride.
The first thing The New Pope does is to remind us that the show is just as much about Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) as it is about any of these popes. You’ll recall him from the first series as the Vatican’t secretary of state and manipulate string-puller who struggled to reel in the enigma that was Lenny Belardo after a lifetime of being used to getting his way as the Vatican’s de facto leader. When Lenny falls into a coma, he decides it’s finally his time to come out of the shadows and submits himself for consideration as the new pope. But he doesn’t have the support he needs, as the conclave is hilariously split between him and Cardinal Hernandez, who for some reason looks exactly like him and is also played by Orlando (sans trademark mole on his cheek). I guess the joke here is that all machiavellian, Napoleanesque figures with delusions of grandeur kind of look alike, but the idea of having two Silvio Orlandos on this season is a pleasing notion.
In any case, up against the wall and facing an inevitable defeat, Voiello hatched a plan to elect Cardinal Viglietti (Marcello Romolo) as a puppet pope. You might remember him from the first season as the confessor of the Vatican, which comes into play later when, in a massive miscalculation on Voiello’s part, Viglietti realizes he has untold power and uses it to make true the prophecies and teachings of his namesake saint Francis by opening the doors to the vatican to refugees, donating the church’s coffers to the poor and forcing his Cardinals to live modest lives by giving up their jewels and living in poverty. He even changes all the passwords on the Vatican’s bank accounts. What’s more, he’s sort of an extremist when it comes to homosexuality and sexual acts in general, as he suggests installing cameras in bathroom stalls to root out the masturbaters. He’s the antithesis of Lenny Belardo, but in the opposite ways for what Voiello wanted.
Putting aside the great storytelling here about a half-baked plan that blows up in Voiello’s face, there are great parallels here to the real life pope. It’s incredibly on the nose thanks to Sorrentino naming him Francis, but it’s also uncanny how Romolo manages to look more like Pope Francis than even Jonathan Pryce from Netflix’s The Two Popes.
Anyway, facing losing his job and even being defrocked, and threatened by Francis’ ultimate knowledge as the Vatican’s confessor (in his own words, he knows things no pope should know), Voiello has a fixer to whom we were introduced earlier in the episode murder the pope all while he and Hernandez agree to let choice #3 behind them in the conclave become pope. Enter the aforementioned John Brannox, who makes an appearance just in time for us to also see Lenny in bed, still in a coma, but moving his finger. The Francis II detour has been complete, and the show has dovetailed back to the premise we were promised.
Surely this won’t once again blow up in Voiello’s face.
It remains to be seen how the show winds up delivering on all of this show. Will Lenny wake up and play the Pope Benedict-style role of a former pope in absentia? Will he be some sort of omnipresent narrator to the audience, or will he manifest as a force ghost of sorts to Voiello and/or Brannox? The point of the premiere was to tell us that this is a show about Cardinal Voiello pulling the strings and how far he’s willing to go. But he still has a conscience. Will Lenny be there to scold him? Either way, this detour did an incredible job of making things more interesting as well as lightening the tone and reminding us that Sorrentino is here to have fun and tell an important story.
In fact, it’s utterly impressive how swiftly the show transitions from the style of The Young Pope to something different for this show. The opening sequence shows us a bunch of nuns behaving badly after lights out, smoking under a neon cross. It leans right into the memes established from the show’s first season. And we get the out-of-place music and over-the-top style all throughout the first act, but that slowly dissipates as everything kind of devolves into more or less a comedy of errors. Once Voiello props up Viglietti, the tone of the show completely shifts. Ironically, it becomes less self-serious as it begins to center around the more serious character of Voiello. Voiello tries to distance himself from the mockery that he considered to the be Pius XIII papacy, but only ventures out further into ridiculousness as he installs a near literal caricature of the real-life current pope.
Of course, by the end of the episode, Sorrentino very clearly tells us that this isn’t what The New Pope will be about. Pope Francis II is dispensed of (although the lasting nature of his short yet disruptive papacy remains to be seen), Voiello is seemingly back in control, possibly alongside his doppelganger, and a new pope is once again chosen, this time, based on the trailers, of a mild-mannered but very distinct personality. What kind of pope John Brannox will be is anyone’s guess.
The first episode of The New Pope does a lot of place-setting, but there are still many exciting questions left to be answered. And despite all of that setup, despite how it dovetails right back to where we started, it still offers a very satisfying, highly entertaining and entirely surprising story, as it lifts a side character from the first season up to the forefront and satirically mocks what might happen if we got an actual intellectual extremist in the pope’s office. Sorrentino takes things to one extreme in order to slingshot us back to the “normal” of the show, and immediately shows us that this show, this premise hasn’t lost a step and still has a relevant story left to tell. I shouldn’t be surprised that The New Pope is already my most anticipated weekly watch, but somehow the premiere still managed to do just that in a delightful way.