“The Young Pope” is one of the more interesting, if weird — and subversively fun — workplace dramas to come along in a while.
The company in question is involved in the rather atypical business of God, to be sure, but the universally human behavior of its employees remains the same. In Jan. 15th’s premiere, the watercooler moment at Vatican, Inc. is the controversial promotion of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) to the organization’s top c-suite spot (Pope).
The reactions swirling around Lenny’s ascension would be instantly recognizable in a more standard corporation: Curiosity about what new changes will follow the change of leadership has everyone on edge, there’s a fair amount of trash-talking about the new boss behind his back… And some — like Lenny’s mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) — are having a harder time than others accepting the apparent unfairness of the promotion: After all, the youth of our titular protagonist comes with an obvious lack of experience compared to the presumably much older candidates who’d hoped to secure that coveted corner office for themselves…
There’s no argument that Pope Lenny isn’t arrogant; he has more than a few dick moves up his flowing white sleeves. He petulantly demands Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, makes the grandmotherly Vatican chef cry for being overly friendly, gets aggressively alpha with Cardinal Vioello (Silvio Orlando) in their first formal meeting by making the Cardinal fetch him coffee…
At just about every turn, our Young Pope spews borderline blasphemy, and takes a barely veiled delight in watching those around him squirm in response. The fun of the show is wondering whether Lenny’s arrogance is warranted: Is he as awful as he initially appears to be, or simply taking that whole “when in Rome” thing to heart? Putting his alpha-ness on full display could be the right move, to intimidate the sycophants, back-stabbers and usurpers that likely surround him at every turn — like taking on the biggest guy in the yard your first day in jail.
Is he a disrespectful young whippersnapper with entitlement issues, blithely rejecting tradition without analyzing and studying it first — or is he a deliberate rebel, determined to shake up the old guard with some new blood and new moves? Does his mission come from God, from his own basic neurosis and history, or something in-between?
Cardinal Vioello appears to be the Pope’s most obvious nemesis, at least at first glance, and it’s Vioello who gives voice to the show’s thesis: namely, that it’s an exploration of “what it takes to be more powerful than everyone else.” Hint: according to Vioello, it’s got a lot to do with knowledge, and specifically, with the art of obtaining it before others.
The show also manages to sneak some unexpectedly funny moments into a premise that could otherwise have taken itself waaaay too seriously. Vioello’s insistence that the sycophants who surround him must provide a proportional amount of laughter in accordance with the funniness of his jokes is a subtle but marked piece of comedy gold. Likewise, when Lenny asks a priest if it was a challenge to clear tourists out of the museum he wished to visit in private, the priest drolly explains that no, the “closed” sign did the job without too much hassle…
Notably at Lenny’s side, at his behest, is Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised orphan Lenny from a very early age, and whom he has now decided to ensconce as his top adviser. She’s not given much to do in the pilot beyond back up Lenny in a somewhat knee-jerk “Yeah, what he said!” fashion — but the assumption is that an actress of Keaton’s caliber wouldn’t have contented herself with a one-dimensional role. With any luck, some seriously entertaining mommy issues will soon be cropping up between these two.
At the very least, “The Young Pope” is making some artistically ambitious creative choices. With a wink and a prayer, maybe it’ll succeed in accomplishing something fun and new in the process.
The five-week “The Young Pope” airs Sundays and Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.