How an HBO drama and NBC sitcom approach the same questions from different angles.
You wanna look me in the face? Go see God first. I’m not gonna show you the way. When you’ve found God, perhaps you will see me as well.
Pope Pius XIII, the youngest Pope of modern times (though as played by a mid-40s Jude Law, not of all time), stands on his balcony. His entire form is shrouded in shadow. He delivers his first homily in a thunderous bellow, in a slight but clear New Yawk accent. “You have forgotten God!” he begins, and it doesn’t get any more hopeful or encouraging from there. “I am closer to God than I am to you. You need to know I will never be close to you, because everyone is alone before God.” And then, as he concludes, it begins to rain.
The parallels to the most surreal and tumultuous week in our American lifetimes are uncanny, and though Paolo Sorrentino’s series premiered to positive (if perplexed) reviews in Europe back in October, the timing for its HBO run couldn’t have been better. While we don’t yet fully understand the machinations that elevated Lenny Ballardo to the Holy See, Pius is prepared to take advantage of the surprise opportunity God has given him (or did He?). “They chose a pope they didn’t know,” he tells in-over-his-head Tomasso, his confessor. “And today they begin to understand.”
But the biggest surprise about The Young Pope, and my reason for writing this piece, is how its title, teaser trailer, and the rampant accompanying memes — heck, even the opening minutes of the premiere, which is textbook “shoot your shot” — built audience expectation for something else entirely. This isn’t a story about a “bad boy Pontiff” who breaks all the rules, throws parties, and treats his vow of chastity like a disposable can of Cherry Coke Zero. It turns out that Pius is conservative enough to take the phrase “go medieval” literally. And while that doesn’t make the series any less strange (baby pyramid?), opulent (those sets!), or subversively funny (this shirt), it also raises curious questions about the role of organized religion in the modern world, and how we might allow one man’s assumed relationship with the divine to bring about a major sea change. Sound familiar?
The series is as devoted to the behind-the-scenes squabbling of Pius’s advisors as it is to its anachronistic soundtrack (I love the rock star opening credits), as much an “art house” series as HBO has ever aired. Sorrentino, though an Oscar winner for his film The Great Beauty, is certainly an acquired taste, and his work keeps you off-kilter by design; it’s not immediately clear whether you should laugh or gasp. The disparate elements of The Young Pope – the kangaroo, the scheming Cardinal Voiello’s (Silvio Orlando) hideous mole, whatever is happening with Ludivine Sagnier – feel arbitrary in isolation, but collectively, it adds to the aesthetic of a series that cleverly balances luxury with decay (physical, moral) on the edge of a razor. Is Pius a sociopath, or prophet? Is he really hearing from God, or pretending, or does he just think he’s hearing from God? Is his hardline stance on everything from homosexuality to papal souvenirs genuine conviction, or cold calculation?
Through another cosmic coincidence, last week also saw the season finale of NBC’s The Good Place, the latest offering from Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur. Its depiction of the afterlife is almost entirely irreligious, but I couldn’t help but notice that this sitcom and The Young Pope had one thing in common: a strict adherence to seemingly arbitrary ethics. Of course, being a Schur production, The Good Place is almost defiantly warm and hopeful; the eternal residents of the sun-dappled neighborhood designed by Michael (a delightful Ted Danson) all have their fatal flaws, but they’re also earnestly trying to navigate what makes a person “good” to begin with.
If every religion only guessed “about five percent” correctly, what remains? “Hug a sad friend” gains you points in the complex celestial algorithm, a score that tallies throughout your life and determines your eternal destination; “disturbing a coral reef” or “telling a woman to smile” loses them. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) realizes that she’s here by mistake, and enlists the help of assigned “soul mate” Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to help her pass as good enough to stick around the Good Place without attracting attention. So rather than delve into potentially fraught discussions about spirituality, Schur keeps it philosophical: charity, sacrifice and selflessness are the key; Kant, Socrates, and Hobbes all get name-checked. That the series is able to broach complex subjects in a 22-minute network comedy is a forkin’ miracle.
And while this all makes for surprisingly breezy entertainment, especially with a talented supporting cast that includes D’Arcy Carden as the neighborhood’s blandly polite “computer,” Janet, Jameela Jamil as a socialite/philanthropist, and Manny Jacinto as a literal Florida Man, there’s a nagging feeling throughout the season that there’s something wrong at the heart of the neighborhood. The answer [SPOILERS!] is something that Pope Pius XIII would agree with: no one is “good” enough. The entire world that Michael created was an experiment of The Bad Place, to bait people who think they’re good into pushing each others’ buttons for all of eternity: after all, hell is other people. It’s a surprising and clever critique of moral absolutism, all the more potent for how deftly Schur laid the track for its reveal – the clues were there all along.
The season finale, which ended with the quartet’s memories being wiped and the whole experiment starting again, left us with plenty of questions about Good Places and Bad Places and Medium Places, and Adam Scott’s insufferable imp, and whether the series can maintain its forward momentum when it returns. A highly serialized sitcom with a rich mythology (Schur is said to have consulted with Lost’s Damon Lindelof, who knows a thing or two about that) is a rare beast, aside from also being thought-provoking. But where the protagonist (antagonist?) of The Young Pope bellows his piety from the rafters while keeping you at arm’s length, the residents of The Good Place know we’re all on this journey together, and invite you along.
Earlier this week, Caleb Saenz published a fantastic essay about Martin Scorsese’s Silence (my top film of 2016), and how the disconnect between its critical and awards success, and the lack of response from faith-based audiences, point to a deepening chasm in how faith and religion are depicted in American cinema. And rather than rehash his points, I want to offer a corollary. That television has been more “interesting” than film in the past decade, more willing to take risks and explore different viewpoints, is difficult to deny. Ever since the “Golden Age” of the 2000s and on through the boom of today’s “Peak TV,” television networks (especially on cable) have routinely taken chances on storytellers who can’t guarantee financial success.
Often, critical acclaim alone has kept a series on the air. But a byproduct of everyone from AMC to Amazon to USA trying to get in the “prestige” game is a bevy of fascinating themes and ideas, many of them embodied in more realistic and relatable characters – who just happened to be religious – than you would see in the theater, whether it’s a Hollywood production or the latest low-budget embarrassment. I’ve written before about the power of Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, which concluded its final season on Sundance TV not long ago and regularly dove into the deep waters of redemption, grace, and forgiveness without pandering or judgment. Its characters were allowed to struggle and make mistakes, without diminishing what their faith meant to them.
Rectify isn’t alone. Members of the Friday Night Lights team were shown to attend an evangelical mega-church, but like everything else on that series, it was handled with a documentarian’s verisimilitude. Nevertheless, the first time we cut to Minka Kelly’s Lyla singing along to a popular worship song that I’d played in my own church’s band, my skin started itching like I was ashamed of it. Why? Because I know how goofy and uncomfortable it can look to an outsider, and I was bracing for a quip or an eye roll that would feed into that feeling. But it never came. The scene just was, and then it moved on. Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor was willing to have the hard conversations with her daughter not just about boys and sex, but prayer, and that nothing about those scenes was neat or cleanly resolved showed that the writers had an insight into those subjects that most productions lack.
I can also point to the Catholicism of Netflix’s Daredevil and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, baked-in like a Communion wafer, and other religious characters on Black-ish, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Transparent that are much more than “types.” On the progressive side, my favorite example is FX’s Cold War series The Americans, and Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). To the horror of Philip and Elizabeth, the series’ titular spy couple brilliantly played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, their teen daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) has gone all-in on Tim’s progressive youth group, adopting their political stances as her own. The parents are conflicted; though any religion is anathema to the Jennings’ belief system, they warily allow Paige to continue with the group, even attending a few services themselves and going through the motions of befriending Pastor Tim and his wife.
The entire time as viewers, we’re waiting for Tim to either die, or worse, be revealed to be a fraud. We’ve all too often seen religious characters serve as cardboard villains or grudging sticks in the mud. But as of now, neither has happened. Even when Paige is finally brought into her parents’ deadly secret and divulges it to Tim over the phone, the potential betrayal hangs over the Jenningses like the Sword of Damocles, and what does Tim do? He just ministers. The families reach an uneasy detante that feels only temporary, but we’ve also been expecting Tim to get taken out for a couple seasons now, and he’s still here. His perceptiveness and actual integrity (not merely “religious” integrity) make him unlike any pastor currently on television. And the diametric opposite of the vindictive Pius XIII.
So back to The Young Pope. I didn’t expect to be nearly as fascinated by this series as I am – I didn’t even plan to watch it until I was won over by the advance buzz. And it’s certainly as bizarre as we expected it to be, but in an entirely unanticipated way. Jude Law is incredible, cocksure and contemptuous, his husky baritone dripping with disdain in every interaction, even when he’s all alone – except with Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Camara), seemingly the only man in the Vatican that he likes. The sets and tricksy location work are dazzling. Though there isn’t much story here yet, just beat after beat of Pope Pius upending the status quo and driving his handlers insane, as his mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) profanely fumes and Diane Keaton plays basketball poorly, it certainly doesn’t lack for raw entertainment, either.
Pius, hazy backstory and all, is a man on a mission. He believes in his own righteousness as much as his handsomeness, even if the nature of his relationship to God hinges on whomever he’s talking to. The central question of the series is simple: will his efforts to reform the Church in his image (though without his actual image) ultimately create a Good Place, or a Bad Place? Both series warn us not to trust our experiences with our eyes or ears alone; time will tell if The Young Pope’s cynicism is earned, or part of an elaborate prank that would make Michael the architect proud. Either way, we should remember that it’s our flaws that make us human, and our desire to correct them that brings us closer to the divine.