“The New Pope,” like its jaunty predecessor, is a story built on gospels. Paolo Sorrentino’s inside look at the leadership of a fictionalized Catholic Church spends a lot of time listening to pontiffs pontificate, his camera slowly circling the central speaker or elevating him from a wide distance as he preaches from atop his papal pulpit. This season, it’s often the eponymous new pope, Sir John Brannox (played with nuanced delight by John Malkovich), who bounces between bloviating and imparting genuine wisdom.
But unlike plenty of real-life homilies, “The New Pope” knows which of its moments are honestly enlightening and which are empty, irrelevant gestures. Sorrentino, and his co-writers Umberto Contrarello and Stefano Bises, recognize the dual aspects of organized religion the Catholic Church historically will not: Faith is rooted in significance and absurdity. By acknowledging both, “The New Pope” honors and eviscerates its central subject.
The lengthy speechifying can build to moving revelations, just as the outrageous jokes make for purposeful hilarity — and vice versa. The former moments will slam into you with a raw, ethereal power rarely felt from TV; the latter will jerk at the sides of your mouth, eliciting a wicked grin or cackling laugh. They work together in such a way that Sorrentino’s series remains one of the most unique, enigmatic, and exhilarating television experiences that you can watch for depth, for fun, or for a wild combination of both.
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Without giving away too many of the season’s surprising twists and turns, “The New Pope” starts not long after “The Young Pope” ends. Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) is in a coma. A heart transplant proves successful, but Pope Pius XII won’t wake up — despite a fiercely loyal following praying for his return, night and day, from St. Peters Square. Led by a single woman in a red hoodie (Kika Georgiou), the silent protesters sleep on the ground and listen to a radio station broadcasting Lenny’s every breath. (If the hoodies featuring Pope Pius XII in full papal regalia aren’t available for purchase by EOD today, HBO should expect a recreation of the Vatican protests outside its Santa Monica office.)
Their faith in him is fanatical, but the Church has to move on and so does “The New Pope”: Enter John Brannox, though not as quickly as you may think. Sorrentino is pretty savvy about deploying his popes, putting story above stars to the betterment of the overall experience. Lenny floats in an out of the first six episodes. His presence is essential, but not prevalent, which is a clever differentiation from the director. “The New Pope” doesn’t miss Lenny, so much as fans may miss the feeling they had when they first met him. That rush of discovering something totally new is gone, but Sorrentino replaces it with plenty of ridiculous scenes, lines, gags, montages, and more. “The New Pope” is “The Young Pope” Season 2, but there’s a reason it’s not labeled as such.
After Episode 1, fans should have a better idea of what to expect from “The New Pope” overall: The style and aims are the same, but this season features a wider focus on faith, on the church, and on its place in the world, rather than exploring those ideas through one man. (Though the storyline peters out a bit, how the Catholic faith treats women is a targeted, effective plot highlighted by a new title sequence filled with nuns in nightwear dancing provocatively beneath a neon cross.)
Still, its new star is a fascinating jumble of contradictions. John Brannox is a self-described “socialite.” From his parents’ castle in northern England, he takes phone calls from Meghan Markle about what dress should she wear. Once in the Vatican, he takes meetings with his “favorite famous people” Sharon Stone and Marilyn Manson, played by themselves. But John is also quite fragile. His parents blame him for his brothers’ death, which they mourn every day, all day, from their slug-ridden wheelchairs. They won’t speak to John, exiling him to the other side of their palatial estate, where he mopes around wearing bespoke suits that match not only his many moods, but the ornate walls around him.
John is coveted by the Church because he’s a moderate. The leadership (headed by everyone’s favorite “appalling” cardinal, Angelo Voiello, played with vicious command by Silvio Orlando) wants to counter the Old Testament fervor Lenny started, as well as some more recent movements begun by characters in the first episode. The contradiction in beliefs between the New Pope and the Young Pope is well-utilized by Sorrentino, as he makes salient points about religious leaders’ capability to inspire and infuriate, often with a few choice words or actions.
“The New Pope” has a lot to say about the church’s role in the modern world, its significance to socio-political events, and what’s expected of its leaders — and it says it with a sharpened edge. But it’s not afraid to throw all that in the trash and give zero answers whatsoever. Sorrentino invites his audience to do the same. Even when the speeches run a bit long, they don’t ask to be taken as gospel. This isn’t a religion, and that’s part of the point. Unlike in church, in here, you’re encouraged to laugh.
“The New Pope” premieres Monday, January 13 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.