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Sex, skullduggery and scandal on HBO’s “The Young Pope”

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HBO

David Ives - published on 10/28/16

But what else would you expect from the people who gave us "Game of Thrones"?

“Habemus Papam!” These are words which can bring a tear of joy to the eye of even the most jaded of Catholics. Now HBO hopes to garner much the same reaction with their utterance of “Habemus Papam a Iuvenibus!” But whether the network’s new series, The Young Pope, will cause the faithful to weep out of happiness or out of sorrow remains to be seen.

Over the course of its first season, The Young Pope follows the fictional Cardinal Lenny Belardo as he assumes the mantle of Pius XIII, the first American Pope in the Church’s history. Elected by the College of Cardinals under the assumption he will be easier to exert control over than his predecessor, the youthful pontiff proves to be decidedly more conservative and headstrong than expected. So, even as he experiences his own personal doubts about the Creator, Pius sets about to forcefully reshape the Vatican into his image of what a godly institution should be.

The show has recently debuted in Europe, and will soon be making its way to the Americas. A full review of The Young Pope will appear once it actually arrives on our shores, but for now, here’s a preview of some of the things to expect once the series finally reaches the States.

Quality production values

Helmed by Academy Award winning director/screenwriter Paolo Sorrentino, who is often compared favorably to Federico Fellini, The Young Pope, if nothing else, is sure to be well crafted and visually stunning. In front of the camera, the names that make up the main cast are just as pedigreed. Jude Law plays the mysterious and arrogant titular character. Diane Keaton is Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny and now acts as his primary confidant. James Cromwell is a cantankerous cardinal who once mentored Lenny, but is now consumed with jealousy over the younger man’s ascent to the pontificate. If the show turns out to be a failure, it certainly won’t be for lack of talent.

Skullduggery

With the power structure in Vatican City basically being that of an elected monarchy, expect plenty of screen time to be devoted to court intrigue. The opening episodes display a pontiff unafraid to flex his authoritative muscles, cardinals jockeying for positions of power, and outsiders hoping to cash in on the image of the Church and the new pope. Such copious amounts chicanery and back-stabbing should come as no surprise in a production from HBO, the same network that has given us Game of Thrones.

Sex and nudity

Did we mention The Young Pope is airing on HBO? Of course, there is sex and nudity, even of the papal variety. And while available previews do not show His Holiness breaking the vow of celibacy, there are strong hints he will face just such a temptation as the series progresses.

Controversy

In an interview with The Guardian, Sorrentino claims he is not trying to cause outrage with his show. “There is no such intention,” the director states. “The main objective remains to bring in the feelings, thoughts and emotions of these men of the Church who are used to only showing us their public dimension, aseptic and polite.” And yet, with a series which opens with the imagery of a pope crawling out from beneath a mountain of naked babies in the middle of St. Mark’s Square, it seems highly unlikely the show will avoid offending someone. Those not put off by such moments of surreal symbolism may still bristle at the portrayal of the fictional pope. As written in the episodes made available for preview, Lenny comes across as a political progressive’s cartoonish vision of what a conservative is, meaning he is coldly authoritative, often cruel (especially to homosexuals), and occasionally hypocritical. Oddly enough, however, the show provides visual cues that suggest Lenny is exactly the man God wants in the Chair of Peter, so progressives could potentially be offended as well.

Where all of this ends up remains to be seen. As with any show, it is difficult to judge an entire series based on its opening episodes. The serialized nature of television allows time for characters to change and grow (sometimes for the worse) and for themes and subtexts to slowly reveal themselves. Will The Young Pope end up being an insightful exploration into the men and women who run Vatican City (it could happen), or will it be just another potshot at the pontificate by a culture that disdains it? Stay tuned.

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