The Vatican experiences a rude awakening when the first American pope rises to power.

By Joe McGovern
January 15, 2017 at 10:00 PM EST
Gianni Fiorito/HBO

A brand-new and never-before-imagined leader has taken command of one of the mightiest institutions in the world. And we’re all heading into uncharted waters.

As already pointed out astutely by EW’s TV critic Jeff Jensen (not to mention series star Jude Law), The Young Pope is a parallel-universe show that is premiering as a gigantic gold-plated mirror for the world in which we’re currently living. That likely was not the main intention of Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty, Youth) when he embarked on this project two years ago, but the echoes ring strong.

Luckily for us, Sorrentino is not some ideological scold. He is first and foremost an entertainer — and a loopy, goofy, Federico-Fellini-influenced one at that. We’ll be amusing ourselves here with the similarities to soon-to-be President Donald Trump, but Sorrentino’s targets are the ones of any bold, always-aiming-up satire: power-hungry, insecure, image-obsessed, egomaniacal, greedy, hedonistic, morally ambiguous. They would’ve been relevant even if the American election had gone the other way.

And even luckier for us, to play the semi-insane title character in his 10-episode miniseries, Sorrentino enlisted Jude Law. Over his 25-year career, Law has been underrated for his comic timing and nastiness, two traits that are MVP assets to The Young Pope‘s tone. (Check out I Heart Huckabees, Sherlock Holmes, or Contagion for evidence. He’s the best thing about all three.) Even the British actor’s very name seems almost too perfect: Jude literally means “servant of Christ,” and we all know the definition of his surname. Though you really have to squint to see it in the show’s opening credits:

Moments later, however, we are rewarded with this deliciously lurid title card, setting quite a tone for what lies ahead:

The show’s premise is already a hoot before the story even gets rolling. Cardinals in Rome have elected a 47-year-old New Yorker named Lenny Belardo as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Convinced Lenny will be nothing more than a “telegenic puppet,” the Vatican gets its first whopper surprise when Lenny, taking the name Pius XIII (already trouble considering the prequel pope with that moniker), delivers his first papal address in St. Peters Basilica. “What else have we forgotten?” he screams. “We have forgotten to masturbate! To use contraception! To get abortions!”

This ends up being a fever dream, of course. Lenny, it seems, has deep reservoirs of liberal philosophy in his subconscious, but his primary goal will be to crush those ideals to dust, both within himself and in the hearts of his 1 billion followers. In the pilot episode, the identity of Lenny’s immediate predecessor isn’t revealed — but Pope Francis, who’s been excoriated by the right, wouldn’t be a bad guess.

And so Lenny pivots hard, and this zesty opening hour establishes him as all the things we’ve come to expect in a 2017 world leader. He’s thin-skinned, intolerant of criticism, cruel towards the disabled and women (especially ones he doesn’t consider attractive), and pumped up by his own wealth and privilege. Doesn’t sound like anyone we know.

Audiences that choose to take the ride in this careening Popemobile should know many, many Catholics get the joke. The pilot scored yuge ratings when it premiered last fall in Italy. One of the smartest reviews of the show — and it was a rave — has come from The Catholic Herald, which uniquely understood the dramatic potential in a 2,000-year-old institution that’s cycled through 266 His Holinesses during its reign, dozens of whom have been murdered on the job.

Still, in an unsurprising slam, professional troll Bill Donohue of the Catholic League says, “Real men and women watch football and drink beer — they don’t get their jollies watching an ideologically driven flick about some tortured pope who has ‘power-mad dreams.'”

On that note, going on the assumption a few real men and women might actually tune into HBO, I’m going to pull out the five points of interest from The Young Pope‘s premiere, titled a rather unimaginative “First Episode.” I’ll be picking the five most-worth-talking-about images, situations, lines of dialogue, or water-cooler moments in each episode going forward. And speaking of water cooler …

1. The dream sequence

That image above is one of many from the show’s big opening swing, a dream which lasts 13 minutes. Jude Law crawling out of a pyramid-sized pile of babies is certainly a way to make an entrance.

Sorrentino, drawing on religious and Renaissance art (and maybe the propaganda tactics of the anti-abortion movement a tiny bit), seems to basically be saying to audiences, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” Abandon all hope, ye who believe in boring good taste.

2. The faces of the people

Conventional beauty doesn’t really do much for Sorrentino. In all his work, he loves the homely, hangdog faces of the downtrodden masses, beginning with these nuns, Cardinals (actor Silvio Orlando, right, with the espresso puck mole on his cheek), and the English-speaking sister whom Lenny insults simply for her acts of kindness.

In a wonderful visual touch, the aged Cardinals who have gathered in a garden to gab about the perils of their church’s future are literally surrounded by slow-crawling turtles. Meanwhile, in one of the show’s funniest bits, the vain Lenny is attributed with a characteristic usually reserved for movie stars and supermodels: As breakfast, he’ll only consume one Cherry Coke Zero.

3. Friend and foe

Emerging in the pilot are two figures from Lenny’s past who will loom large in his future. His mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), who was the conclave’s safe choice for pope, is first seen attempting to commit suicide (!!!) upon learning the news of his prodigy’s ascension.

And then there’s Kellyanne Conway Sister Mary (Diane Keaton, her juiciest role in years) as the American nun who raised Lenny since he was 7 years old. She’s obviously teed up to be his wisest, most trusted and, potentially, most ruthless adviser. And shrink. In a private moment, she pleads with him about the immense new perspective he must adopt: “Now, your personal aches, your enormous suffering … They must take a back seat!”

4. Can’t you take a joke?

“I don’t believe in God,” Lenny says at the episode’s end. It’s one of many statements, just in the show’s first hour, he makes with full conviction in his voice, only to claim he was just joking. And, of course, it’s the listener’s fault (in this case, Tomaso, his confessor) for not getting his offbeat sense of humor. Imagine what he’ll say on Twitter.

5. Best line

In a strong field, my pick from the premiere is this: Lenny asks Tomaso about his health.

“My only problem is my hair, Your Holiness,” the elder man says.

“You mean it’s falling out?”

“Not only that. Sometimes it hurts.”

“Your hair hurts,” Lenny says with a smile and a drag of a cigarette. “Good. Very good.”