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‘The Young Pope’: How an HBO Drama Thrived After All Those Memes, and The Funniest Moments Yet

HBO's new papal drama got an early boost in buzz from a stream of hysterical memes, and yet the funniest moments are still in the show itself.

The Young Pope Season 1 Episode 4 Jude Law HBO

Gianni Fiorito/HBO

When “The Young Pope” debuted overseas, America kept quiet. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2016 and then on Italian TV in late October, Jude Law devotees and Paolo Sorrentino aficionados were aware, but little spirit — holy or otherwise — survived the trip across the pond. Even when HBO announced the premiere date and sent out a trailer in early December, it took another month for the series to catch fire and send white smoke billowing from the internet’s chimney.

READ MORE: ‘The Young Pope’: Paolo Sorrentino Explains That Stellar Opening Sequence, Kangaroos and More

Yet when the signal sounded, the dopest pope of TV was quickly coronated. Memes, fan art, and more funny commentary spread across the web like prayers during lent — quickly and in droves. We’ve discussed them a few times already, but here are a few choice offerings to set the mood:

Not so fast, IndieWire contributor (and all-around wonderful person) Sam Adams. While many have debated the artistic merit of “The Young Pope,” ranging from delightful to ridiculous, the confusion amongst critics and fans as to whether or not they were supposed to be laughing during each hour-long episode is over. Any doubt over whether “The Young Pope” was intended to sport an aptly modern sense of humor vanished Sunday night when Sorrentino unveiled the series’ official title credits:

This is one wickedly funny show.

The Young Pope - Wink gif opening credits

In the new slow-motion credits sequence, Law’s pope walks past moving paintings to Devlin’s remix of “Watchtower” as a shooting star flies from one frame to the next. Adorned in his white priest’s robes and white zucchetto, Lenny suddenly looks directly into the camera and gives the audience watching at home a knowing wink; right before the shooting star transforms into a meteorite and smashes into an old pope.

READ MORE: ‘The Young Pope’ Review: Jude Law Rules with Old Testament Authority in an HBO Series That’s Set to Surprise

Now, there’s larger context to the sequence: The “old pope” is, in fact, Pope John Paul II, and the image of him being struck by a meteorite comes from Maurizio Cattelan’s 1999 artwork titled “The Ninth Hour.” (If you’re interested in learning more, IndieWire’s Hanh Nguyen got some telling answers about the credits from Sorrentino himself.) But it was clear, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that “The Young Pope” knew exactly what it was, and the memes only helped foreshadow the jokes to come.

So far, Season 1 has been filled with a number of outstanding comedic moments, all of which provide much-needed juxtaposition to the heavy drama built into the rest of the series. Take, for instance, an image from last night’s episode:

The Young Pope - Juggling gif HBO Jude Law

While the scene itself provided key context for Lenny’s backstory, the sheer image of the pope juggling oranges — to the great bemusement of himself — was pretty darn funny. Moreover, it’s just the kind of .gif fans want to share with their friends when remembering the lighter moments of the series… even if it’s not the laugh-out-loud joke of, say, this scene:

The Young Pope - Diane Keaton shirt gif HBO

While Diane Keaton’s character, the matronly Sister Mary, remains a bit confounding through four episodes, this kind of blunt subversion of expectations helps smooth over any frustrations. She may be mysterious right now, but her motivations are bound to be filled out as the series progresses. (Keaton’s confused performance, well, that may stick around.)

The only visual to rival Keaton’s t-shirt reveal and the new credits came in Episode 2 when the Pope got a new pet.

The Young Pope Kangaroo Episode 2 gif Jude Law

Sorrentino’s flair for the dramatic really benefitted this scene, as the combination of a wild animal and the holiest human alive made for a delightful pair. Moreover, Lenny’s love for the kangaroo could be seen in how he calmly drew it from its cage, and let me assure you (the slightest of slight spoilers for future episodes) the kangaroo pops up in future episodes — sometimes literally.

The Young Pope - Kangaroo gif Jude Law

Still, even a love story between the youngest of popes and the happiest of kangaroos couldn’t hold a candle to the funniest scene of Season 1: titled, as I like to imagine appears in the script, “When the Pope Orders a ‘Snack'”:

The Young Pope gif Jude Law Snack

Yes, his snack. When Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) explained the purpose of the button hidden under the papal desk, we imagined it would come back up, but never would we have guessed the device used to politely excuse guests would provide such deep, deep laughs.

Sick of hearing from his seated guest (for reasons both clear and further clarified later on), Lenny hits the button so his aide will come in with a reasonable excuse for him to end the meeting. Except when she enters, her urgent rationale for pulling the pope out of his torturous conversation is that his holiness needs…a snack.

Lenny can’t help but let out a laugh when he hears it, then he looks down for a second, gathering himself, before looking up and responding with the above, exhausted question. The sister doesn’t bat an eye, though, repeating her request, and thus forcing Lenny to embrace the absurdity of the situation; which, frankly, was probably fine with him, considering he’s not one to keep his opinions to himself.

The Young Pope Jude Law gif Snack

It might be the best part of a tremendous performance from Jude Law thus far, and at the very least stands as the peak comedic moment in three episodes full of them. We’ll try to update this with more hysterical moments as more episodes roll out, but for now let’s turn our attention back to where it all started: the memes. How did the memes affect the series’ perception in the immediacy and how do they reflect its attitudes now?

Well, that’s a question best suited for a panel, and Very Good TV Podcast has assembled just that for this week’s episode. Listen below as TV Critic Ben Travers, TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and special guest podcaster Hanh Nguyen, IndieWire’s Senior Editor, debate the many mysteries of “The Young Pope.”

Don’t forget to subscribe to Very Good TV Podcast via Soundcloud or iTunes. Check out Liz and Ben’s Twitter feeds for more, more, more. Plus, don’t forget to listen to IndieWire’s other podcastsScreen Talk with Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson, as well as Michael Schneider’s new podcast, Turn It On, which spotlights the most important TV of each week.

And for more on “The Young Pope” and all its dope pope ways, keep reading IndieWire. We’ll be all over this one.

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