HBO seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to dramas. From “The Sopranos,” to “Westworld,” to its pièce de résistance “Game of Thrones,” HBO has launched viewers into the new golden age of TV, the network’s three letters becoming a sort of holy trinity in modern television. “The Young Pope,” the latest HBO drama, is another contribution to the network’s onslaught of cinematically stunning, popular TV programs.
“The Young Pope” is intriguing, opulent and a little spooky. Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo, the first American and youngest archbishop to be elected as Pope. The show begins with Belardo’s first day in Vatican City, when in the first of many power moves, Lenny sends away the smorgasbord of breakfast prepared for him in favor of a single Cherry Coke Zero. As Belardo carries on with his first day, he makes it abundantly clear that although he’s young, he’s no one’s puppet. Belardo has no problem asserting his newfound power as Pope Pius XIII, and the palpable tension from each power struggle that ensues leaves viewers both cringing and wanting more.
Perhaps the most gripping piece of the show is Belardo’s nature as an amazing anti-hero. While viewers root for his success as the show’s protagonist, Law’s portrayal of Belardo is dripping with an intoxicating malevolence that both scares you and begs you not to make up your mind about him just yet. Each of Belardo’s moves are carefully calculated to the point where they become borderline sociopathic. In the two episodes aired so far, we’ve begun to see a small window into Belardo’s vulnerability, bringing a new shade into the complex mosaic of his character that “The Young Pope” has only started to unravel. Belardo is unpredictable and uncontrollable, leaving me unable to take my eyes off him.
Following suit of other HBO originals, “The Young Pope” is visually stunning. The crisp whites, crimson reds and pitch blacks of the clergy’s robes make for beautiful, exciting color schemes. The incredible camera work further enhances the show’s visual excellence. Grandiose scenes reveal the opulence of the papacy, while simpler scenes capture the intimacy and urgency of the interpersonal interactions taking place within the walls of the Vatican.
Another one of the show’s strengths lies in its supporting roles. Diane Keaton plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised Belardo after he was given up for adoption as a child. Sister Mary struggles with the dynamics of her son-like figure becoming not only her superior, but also Catholicism’s ear to God. Keaton takes this complex role in stride as she beautifully juxtaposes her character’s vulnerability and strength. Silvio Orlando, an actor better known by Italian audiences, plays the role of Cardinal Voiello. Voiello is “The Young Pope’s” antagonist thus far, countering Belardo’s desire to change the Church with the constant insistence that the Church has always operated in a certain way. This perpetual push and pull creates a relationship that feels more like an arm-wrestling match. Orlando plays Voiello as a wonderfully slimy character whose every detail, from his despicable politics to the gaudy mole affixed to his face, is fun to hate.
Although “The Young Pope” has all the elements of an HBO classic — excellence in writing, acting and originality — the pacing of the show could be its Achilles’ heel. The nature of Belardo’s character is to play the world around him like a chess match. Careful not to show his hand too soon, Belardo makes his moves in a slow and calculated manner, revealing only what he wants to be known, and only when he is ready for it to be revealed. In a similar fashion, “The Young Pope” operates on this suspense by letting out Belardo’s neuroses in a gradual way that impatient viewers might find meandering rather than intriguing.
With an exciting premise and impressive execution, “The Young Pope” has the potential to become the next home run in the HBO hall of fame. May “The Young Pope,” which airs Sundays and Mondays at 9 p.m., be with you, and with your spirit.