(Warning: Mild spoilers for The Young Pope follow.)
The Young Pope is weird, guys. Like, super weird. In one episode, there's a shot of nuns playing soccer in super beautiful slow-mo, and one of them does that trick where they flip the ball up over their head and over a defender in order to dribble past her. And yes, they're in their full habits. Later, another nun also plays basketball, if soccer isn't your thing. There's also the Cardinal Secretary of State who has the hornies for an ancient statue that looks like something I made at Thanksgiving dinner out of my mashed potatoes when I was bored by my family's conversation. And that is probably the 426th weirdest thing in HBO's daring new series.
But what makes The Young Pope — a 10-episode series debuting Jan. 15 on HBO — not just watchable but downright entertaining, is that The Young Pope knows it's weird. It wants to be weird. And it may have something to say that needs to be heard. Acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has crafted a series — perhaps while stoned out of his gourd — that's part performance art and part subversive dark comedy about the clash of modernism and traditional religion, and it's all entrancingly bizarre.
You probably already know the gist of the story: Jude Law plays Lenny the new pope. And he's young. Somewhere in his mid-40s, decades younger than most popes when they first don the funny hat. It's not worth wondering how he became the (young) pope because The Young Pope only wants to ask, "What if a young American became the pope?" and not how. (But if you must know, he was sent to a religious orphanage at a young age where he took the cloth and rose up through the archdiocese of New York.)
Your first assumption would be that a young American pope would go the Adam Sandler route and shred the halls of the Vatican on a skateboard while chugging Jesus juice from a beer hat. But The Young Pope does a sharp left turn, placing Lenny not as the kind progressive American looking to bring The Vatican into the modern era, but a pissed-off pontiff who wants to grind his flock under his boot through fire and brimstone.
The series becomes an occasionally frightening look at absolute power as Lenny tears down the old establishment and even forsakes his most trusted help — including Sister Mary, played by Diane Keaton — once he feels the inebriation from the power he's taken. Well, maybe.
One thing The Young Pope isn't great at is being clear at who Lenny is. At times he dreams of being liberal and forward-thinking (or was it a nightmare?) and elevates trusted allies to positions of power, and at others, he's ranting about how people have forgotten God and crushing those nearest to him. He also liberates kangaroos that were a gift from Australia, and yes, that's an actual thing that happens on The Young Pope. There's also a sneaking suspicion that he doesn't believe in God at all, and he's merely playing the role of pope without any of the faith that comes from it.
It's this weird interplay that speaks to the ridiculousness of organized religion at the highest levels (and on some levels does for religion what House of Cards does for politics). For example, though Lenny is arrogant, he shoots down a marketer's request for photo shoots to put his visage on plates to sell for 45 Euros, instead taking cues from Banksy and Daft Punk — who Lenny literally cites; this pope is cool as heck — and opting to never be photographed and only give addresses shrouded in shadows.
Thankfully this strange and inconsistent character is brought to life by a dazzling performance from Law, who somehow makes the Pope's love for Cherry Coke Zero — and only Cherry Coke Zero; when his assistant asks if he'd like a Diet Coke instead, Lenny says, "Let's not utter heresies" — a personable quirk from a man who knows what he wants rather than random bizarre dialogue. (The last time we saw someone so specific about esoteric soft drinks, it was Zach Galifianakis going through a drive-thru.)
Also helping The Young Pope feel legit are Sorrentino's incredible visuals, which should be gobbled down by your eyes like candy, their sweetness able to stave off the concerns that the series is a mess. The opening six minutes are a sight to behold, and a preview of how Sorrentino is able to portray power, darkness and humor (sometimes all at once) in the composition of his shots. It helps that the architecture where The Young Pope is set is already gorgeous, nearly matching God's meticulous architecture of Law's face, and that a wonderful score dominated by downtempo synths and plucky folk brings the myriad feelings to almost all your senses.
But the surprising thing here is how Sorrentino is also game for frequent humor, particularly when Lenny is scrambling to press the Pope's emergency button that calls in an aide to give him a bogus excuse to get out of an excruciating meeting. Close-ups of Lenny's hand searching for the button underneath his table while a stone-faced Cardinal sits on the other side are hilarious and proof that The Young Pope — as its derided title would imply — is not to be taken so seriously.
What is to be taken seriously is the underlying message here, and it's a message that America could use right now as we inch closer to the flatlining of democracy. Absolute power corrupts, and corruption absolutely loves power. Sorrentino wraps that message up in a surreal dream, while we pinch ourselves to wake up from ours.
The Young Pope debuts Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9/8c on HBO.