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HBO's 'The New Pope' sets Jude Law and John Malkovich on a slow-motion collision course

Much like many of HBO’s successful shows, the Catholic Church is less the subject of the series and more a backdrop for political intrigue.
Image: Jude Law and John Malkovich in \"The New Pope.\"
Jude Law and John Malkovich in "The New Pope."Gianni Fiorito / HBO

The proliferation of papal-based series (and movies) recently makes sense when you look at the Catholic Church in the context of prestige TV’s obsession with rich and powerful families. Catholic leaders offer budget-busting imagery mixed with deliberately detailed pomp and circumstance. The latest trip to the Vatican comes via HBO’s “The New Pope,” a follow-up limited series to “The Young Pope.” In it, a fictionalized John Paul III takes the reins of the papacy and remakes it in an image sure to cause controversy. But while this might seem like a retread of its predecessor, “The New Pope” proves its worth by pushing the thematic boundaries of faith and fundamentalism.

(Some spoilers below.)

While this might seem like retread of its predecessor, “The New Pope” proves its worth by pushing the thematic boundaries of faith and fundamentalism.

This spate of pope-alicious TV shows began with “The New Pope’s” predecessor, which was controversial in its own right. Starring Jude Law as the titular young pope (well, young by Vatican standards, anyway), his fictional Pius XIII (nee Lenny Belardo) is an Italian Catholic orphan who clawed his way up the American Catholic bureaucracy to become the archbishop of New York, before extending his ambitions all the way to the Vatican. Much like many of HBO’s successful shows, the Catholic Church was less the subject of the series and more a backdrop for political intrigue.

The show was made accidentally timelier when its U.S. premiere episode arrived a week before President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. At times, it felt like a surrealist take on how unchecked American ego can wreak havoc on institutions. Elsewhere it just seemed hellbent on cheering on the destruction of institutions foolish enough to assume themselves too big to fail.

“The Young Pope” was also, at the time, billed as a “limited series,” suggesting there would be no second season. The ending also seemed pretty definitive, as Pius XIII collapsed from a heart attack just as he finds a redemptive inner peace of sorts. But here we are, several years hence, with the next chapter. In a cruel twist of fate, it turns out Pius XIII did not die. Instead, he’s left his second in command Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) in the worst of all possible positions: serving a pope in a vegetative state. Modern medicine can keep Pius XIII alive for the next several decades, without ever actually being able to bring him back to consciousness.

With Pius out of commission, Voiello becomes the show’s default protagonist, at least in the early going. He has, thus far, attempted to maintain the status quo. But with the Catholic faithful turning Pius into what multiple characters refer to as “a living saint” and the rest of the cardinals getting antsy, it’s time to move on. The show opens as Voiello moves to pick another pope, who will spend most of his reign, if not all, overshadowed by his never-to-regain-consciousness predecessor. Enter the “new pope,” John Paul III (nee Sir John Brannox), played by John Malkovich.

This plotline is a potentially smart way to avoid a full repeat of the original themes of politics and power. Not that the politics are absent; the wheelings and dealings of cardinals in their silken hats have not been lost. But the creative mastermind behind the show, Paolo Sorrentino, also injects a heavy dose of religious fundamentalism into the proceedings. He takes the subject of faith down from the set décor and makes it more of a central theme. The show mostly wants to dig into Catholic fundamentalism, in all its forms, from the growing idolatry of Pius to how his successors tackle their duties.

But this also means that the show isn’t always so interested in its titular new pope. For one thing, there are multiple new pope contenders in the early going, as Voiello schemes to find someone he can manipulate. The young pope shook up the Vatican with his untraditional ideas, but what if his successor is someone who swings to the opposite extreme? In one scene, it is suggested those who molest children will be dealt with as harshly as those who (in the words of one character) “abuse themselves," and to that end, there will be cameras placed in every bathroom stall. When 21st technology meets first century values, things can go very wrong.

Indeed, Malkovich’s Brannox (who will become John Paul III) doesn’t turn up at all in the show’s premiere. Once he does, it takes a while to convince him to leave his estate in the English countryside, where he spends his time looking irritated at phone calls from Meghan Markle. (The Markle jokes have been overtaken by recent royal family events, but that may be for the best.) Like his decision to go to Rome, John Paul III takes a much more languid path toward his eventual upending of the status quo. (Thankfully, this does not include bathroom surveillance.) The season follows suit, and meanders at times, wandering off on tangents that include random Sharon Stone or Marilyn Manson cameos.

The energy picks up once Pius XIII makes a remarkable recovery (this has been spoiled in the trailers) and suddenly the young pope and the new pope find themselves on a collision course. That it takes a while to get to this papal showdown is merely par for the season. But even though the series is determined to take the slow path to its obvious ending, it’s an enjoyable ride, both for its meditations on faith and all that gorgeous Vatican scenery.