Saturday, March 11, 2017

5 Reasons To Binge-Watch The Young Pope [Guest Poster: Erin Allen]

As some shows air their finales, you may be looking for something quick to binge before other shows premiere. The Young Pope is ten, one-hour long episodes which would make an easy weekend binge — or, a one-day affair, if you’re feeling ambitious. Here are my reasons why you should check out The Young Pope.

(I apologize in advance for the many religious puns.)

1. It is a work of art.

It’s like a gorgeous foreign film and a cult TV show had a baby — or a chill, less crowded Heironymus Bosch painting come to life. The cinematography is grand and opulent. Most frames are works of art in and of themselves. Sometimes there is a bizarre element that adds a fun bit of quirkiness, such as Pope Pius decked out in luxurious papal robes with a pair of fierce shades to top it off — pontifical haute couture. It is definitely a (high holy) feast for your eyes.

While it feels like old world art reimagined for the hipster era, there are references and appearances of real art from the past. My high school art history came rushing back to me. The Venus of Willendorf is practically a character in some scenes. “The Bearded Woman” by Jusepe de Ribera appears frequently and becomes a part of the narrative.

The title sequence has the Pope sauntering down a hallway of masterpieces. As he passes, a shooting star hurtles through them, bringing each of them to life, and ending as a meteorite in a replica modeled after the controversial sculpture, “The Ninth Hour” by Maurizio Cattelan. If you are curious about the history behind the works depicted in the opening like I was, here are all ten explained.

As I started to read up on these pieces, my mind became a frenzied metaphor-making machine. The correlations one could draw between the story and the art were endless. One can read into the artistic piece one way as well as the plot and the characters’ motivations creating an infinite supply of analogies. Although it is overwhelming enough to give you a Vatican City-size headache, I found it to be a really enjoyable aspect, in a mind-bending kind of way.

2. The many "what the what?" moments.

The Young Pope is filled with moments that make your jaw drop and your eyeballs morph into question marks. It would be a great watercooler show if it had the larger audience it deserves. (Aside: are there still watercooler shows in this DVR/Netflix age?) From a kangaroo to a mountain of babies to Cherry Coke Zero, it never ceases to shock and awe the viewer.

About ninety percent of the time I’m not quite sure what is going on, or why characters are doing what they are doing. You would think this would be annoying, but it’s really not. Even the most straight-forward of characters will do something crazy, at some point. A lot of the time things happen when you least expect, but that happens so much that you start to anticipate the oddities, and even then they still catch you off guard. It’s quite amazing, actually.

Take, for example, a somber scene where Lenny goes to Sister Mary’s room to find out more about the parents that left him at the orphanage when he was a child. Lenny confides that the loss of his mother and father weighs heavily on him and shakes his faith in God. Serious stuff, right? Well, during this scene Sister Mary is wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt.” My Lord, that is cheeky! And I am here for it.

Also, this friggin’ show has me shipping a cardinal and a nun. What the what?! But, they really are sweet. “Whoever said that a man can’t love God and a woman at the same time? That’s bull----.”

3. The big themes.

As you would expect with a show that centers on a major religion, a lot of big themes are explored. Good versus evil, morality, love, and politics. It also makes it very relevant to what is going on in our world today. In “Episode 1,” we see Pope Pius give a speech to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. He covers many of the human rights issues that we are discussing today. The Young Pope gets you thinking about big concepts in different ways.

A major thread through this first season is about parental bonds. A lot of what motivates Lenny stems from being an orphan. He struggles with what being parent-less means, and how it has shaped him. This storyline is rich in subject matter, and, in my opinion, the least interesting. That says a lot.

I was raised a Catholic, and went to a Catholic school for nine years. The existence of God and the role He might play in my life is something that I’ve thought about my whole life. I really love the way the show plays with this larger-than-life theory and belief. It is fascinating to see these characters who are literally “holier than thou” wrestle with the same ideas.

4. The casting.

Leading roles and bit players alike serve up astounding performances. I don’t think a single actor dropped the ball on their character even once, no matter how small the part.

Aside from Jude Law, Diane Keaton and James Cromwell are the other household names. Diane Keaton plays Sister Mary, the Pope’s closest confidant. Like Lenny/Pope Pius, you are never truly sure of her intentions. She is mysterious. Keaton balances the docile and the strong qualities within her character well. Cromwell has grace and command over his power-hungry Cardinal Spencer.

Silvio Orlando and Javier Cámara seemed to come out of nowhere and bowl me over with their talent. Both men gave real and moving portrayals of cardinals who work closely with the Pope. They approach their positions in the Vatican very differently. It was compelling to see them interact with Pope Pius, but also see them on their own.

Scott Shepherd, Cécile De France, and Ludivine Sagnier had small but significant roles. I’ve been a fan of Sagnier since I saw her in Swimming Pool, but I haven’t really had a chance to see her in anything else. She plays the innocent Esther with an unassuming air. The Young Pope is full of duplicitous people even though they are touted as the holiest of them all. Esther’s purity offers a unique peace in the ever-changing affairs of the Church. De France’s portrayal of the Vatican’s publicity manager is similarly refreshing. We know exactly what she wants, but she is not shady in her ways of trying to get it. Shepherd as Lenny’s childhood friend and colleague is at once a voice of reason and a deeply conflicted individual.

Everyone pulls their weight and it is invaluable to the show. The Young Pope is a high-concept series with intelligent writing and beautiful cinematography. It could easily relax in this area, but instead it excels.

5. Jude Law

Jude Law as the titular character has an enormous job. He seems to handle it effortlessly. Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius the XIII is unlike any other character on TV. He has so many different facets of his personality and none of them feel false. He can be a pious and vengeful leader and a saintly ally. He can act like a pouty teenager and a scared child. He can instill fear or courage in the people he meets. He can do all this and more. He can be many things within the span of a scene and it comes off as believable. Law crafted this character in such a way that this manic, yet disciplined behavior is authentic and unique to him. I hope Law had fun with it. It certainly seems that way, and it is definitely fun to watch as a viewer.

There is a scene which I spoke about in the TV MVP Series that still cracks me up just thinking about it. The amount of expressions and reactions he affects in mere seconds is astonishing. And each expression is totally reasonable under the circumstances. You could probably get a hundred reaction GIFs out of it.

Law took this complicated and often contradictory character and brought him to life in a surprising and entertaining way.

I really enjoyed this limited series. It’s an entirely different TV viewing experience than my usual fare. I liked the challenge it gave me to think outside the box. It’s both a comedy and a drama. It’s both reverent and irreverent. There are many qualities that make it worth a watch. Oh, and did I mention there is a kangaroo? It can be a drinking game. Drink every time you see the kangaroo. My whole adventure with The Young Pope was a blast and I highly recommend checking it out.


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