Pope Pius XIII is as handsome, intelligent, and well-spoken as he is young (47 years old — an infant in papal terms). He is also kind of a jerk — he smokes in the Papal Palaces, drinks only Cherry Coke Zero in the morning (therefore he must be evil!), and has no patience for friendly relations among his co-workers (or, more specifically, with the kindly elderly nun who serves as his cook). Worst of all, he casually trolls priests by joking about his disbelief in God, a God whose house, he insists with unflappable authority, lies somewhere within the Big Dipper constellation.
In any other setting, Pope Pius XIII would represent a pontifical version of every brash, unpleasant, self-important asshat the viewer has ever encountered. However, Jude Law portrays the young Pope’s seemingly innate amorality — as well as his contempt for his fellow clergymen and for the traditions and institutions of the Vatican, which he openly sidesteps and ignores — with such adroitness that one cannot help but sneer along with him at the petty sins of the puny men who form his entourage (such as Cardinal Voiello’s hilarious lusting over the ancient, corpulent Venus of Willendorf statue in the Vatican museum).
Pope Pius XIII’s off-putting, smarmy self-importance, which he believes comes with his role as intercessor between Man and God, only adds to his charm. Not since Hugh Laurie’s iconic portrayal of Dr Gregory House has such a clearly misanthropic anti-hero become so endearing to audiences in recent years. Perhaps this is because HBO aired the series premiere of The Young Pope one week before the dreaded 45th U.S. Presidential inauguration, distracting fretful viewers with what promises to be a wondrously over-the-top satire of an outdated, autocratic institution, with the ancient and storied Catholic Church standing in for all that is loved and familiar, and yet woefully vulnerable to the corruption of deluded, unscrupulous mortals whose power was granted willfully by the masses.
The Young Pope is darkly comical, and almost Seinfeldian in its nihilism. Almost nothing happens in the first episode, which centers on Pius’ first day on the job, save for a few memorable and inane encounters between the new pontiff and his crew, along with many lost souls who inhabit the Holy See. Instead of focusing on the gravity of the role he is now meant to play, the new Pope gripes about the weakness of the radio signal within Vatican City — an inexcusable offense — and other petty annoyances to distract himself from his dread of having to finally address the College of Cardinals, as well as the hordes of the faithful who will soon descend upon St Peter’s Square to hear the words of their new Holy Father.
The Young Pope is both a scathing lampoon and clever commentary on the consequences of yielding one’s power and agency to a bloated institution that is woefully out of touch with the lived realities of the twenty-first century. Whatever may come to pass in real life in the weeks and months to come, this series is exactly the kind of the guilty pleasure we all need right now, so long as life does not imitate art on the world stage.