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The New Pope’s Tireless Commitment to Transgression

Paolo Sorrentino’s new HBO show plays a variation on the decadence of “The Young Pope.”

Gianni Fiorito/HBO

In 2017’s The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino served up what was arguably one of the best television scenes of the last decade—namely Jude Law, as Pope Pius XIII, being dressed in his ceremonial finery to the blasphemous, perfect strains of LMFAO’s club hit I’m Sexy and I Know It. Not since Dickie Greenleaf had Law found a character so suited to his particular combination of good looks and arrogance, his cocky mien suggesting that desirability and divinity may be more or less the same thing. (“You know something, Holy Father?” Pius’s secretary of state tells him, irritably, in an earlier episode. “You are as handsome as Jesus, but you are not actually Jesus.” “I may actually be more handsome,” Pius grins. “But keep that to yourself.”) “No other musical attempts were carried out for this scene,” Sorrentino informed GQ, who called his use of the LMFAO track “trippy” and “spectacular.” This makes sense: Dumb as it is, the song is, too, about the power conferred by good looks, the way that gorgeousness can be as confounding to an onlooker as witnessing a miracle. Sexiness, The Young Pope appeared to imply, is next to godliness.

Pius XIII, né Archbishop Lenny Belardo of New York, is a chain-smoking, Cherry Coke Zero–loving sex symbol who happens to have been elected into the most powerful position in the Catholic Church. He is also, much to the chagrin of the cardinals who elected him, a tyrant: conservative, full of hellfire, and seemingly immune to the temptations of the flesh. If The Young Pope had been the show the internet believed it would be—one about a cool, bed-hopping pope remaking the Catholic church in his own libidinous, liberated image—it would have been DOA, a one-note gag that was not terribly insightful to begin with. Instead, Lenny’s old-school ideas, his initial extremism and dour outlook on contemporary sexual values, made him an intriguing antihero and The Young Pope a 10-hour meditation on the contradictions inherent in treating a fallible, corporeal man as a conduit for the infallible, heavenly voice of God.

For the most part, Lenny is empty, a man obsessed with the absence of his real, flesh-and-blood parents, hoping to appease a different kind of Father. He refuses to allow his public to get a look at his “handsome” face, a move that he sees as self-sacrifice and that the viewer might interpret either as a power play or an extremely clever, teasing piece of marketing. In The Young Pope’s season finale, he suffers a heart attack while standing on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, believing he has glimpsed his estranged parents in the crowd. “One day I will die,” he tells the faithful, “and I will finally be able to embrace you all, one by one.” It is another failure of the body, and another recognition of its limits in the face of a position that requires him to channel the divine. 

The New Pope opens with him in a coma, being tended to by a young nurse in a room lit by a neon crucifix—because he’s sexy and she knows it, the young nurse is unable to keep herself from masturbating after administering his nightly sponge bath. We are left in no doubt as to Sorrentino’s tireless commitment to transgression. The opening credits, showing nuns dancing like strippers to the strains of Euro-house, resemble something from a nunsploitation film directed by Gaspar Noé.

What is new about The New Pope? Because the HBO series is not being released all at once but episodically, knowing exactly what to say about its plot is challenging. In its first episodes, the show’s narrative arc begins establishing itself at a snail’s pace. With Lenny Belardo now indisposed, the Vatican must vote for a replacement. First, a Pope named Francis with socialist leanings is appointed, then dispatched. (Charity may begin at home, but it does not begin in God’s house, where the holy men have no intention of quitting their ceremonial bling.) A more moderate man is nominated for the job, and after some self-deprecating murmuring, he acquiesces.

The titular New Pope is, as you are no doubt aware if you have seen this season’s marketing, played by John Malkovich: An Englishman with an extremely loony accent, Sir John Brannox is a fop, a former punk, and softhearted enough that other characters constantly talk about his being made of porcelain. There is a running gag about his close friendship with Meghan Markle and another about his being a “socialite.” “My favorite people are Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Sharon Stone, and Marilyn Manson,” he remarks while watching Easy Rider. “They seem free.” When he says “parents,” it sounds like he’s saying “parrots,” and when he says “pope,” the word has more syllables than it ought to have. 

“He is persuasive, he’s seductive, he envelops you,” his chief of marketing remarks. “The man seems to be made of velvet.” Later, she remarks that he reminds her of somebody: “My favorite actor, John Malkovich.” “He doesn’t do much for me,” Brannox shrugs, as if he barely knows who John Malkovich is. This kind of meta humor is the lifeblood of The New Pope, its sometime absurdity often excused by the addition of a note of the surreal. Marilyn Manson, playing himself, becomes an audience surrogate when he turns up to meet the pope and is visibly disappointed that he isn’t the young, hot pope from season one. Sharon Stone, playing herself, is asked politely to refrain “from the crossing or uncrossing of [her] legs” during her visit to the Vatican. Throughout the series, subjects as diverse and troubling as child abuse and terrorism, not to mention murder and the exploitation of underage sex workers, share space with flashy set pieces, nude scenes, and jokes about SSC Napoli. As far as I recall, only one female character under the age of 50 who has actual dialogue does not get naked. Still, fans of The Young Pope will not necessarily have been expecting a single, coherent tone, nor will they balk at some of Sorrentino’s racier digressions. The New Pope, much like its predecessor, is a disco-fueled synthesis of dense ecclesiastical politics and high-camp sex appeal, its vibe often simultaneously eccentric and ecstatic. 

As in The Young Pope, too, an interest in the disparity between physical and spiritual states pervades The New Pope. In the case of the show’s interest in sick and disabled bodies, this occasionally manifests itself in something not quite tasteful, a belief in the inherent purity of those whose bodies do not offer them the opportunity to be as venal, self-centered, or apt to use their sexuality for ill as “perfect” specimens. Brannox, who chooses to be known as Pope John Paul III, is a less perfect specimen of manhood than Lenny Belardo, making it logical that he is also less of a fanatic: He believes that love—be it religious or romantic—ought to manifest itself as abstract tenderness, never as concrete passion. His reasonable attitude to faith, to say nothing of his aversion to real conflict, makes him infinitely easier to root for than his predecessor. (“I suffered when Great Britain voted for Brexit,” he sighs to the assembled cardinals. Brannox, c’est moi.)

What a pity, then, that many viewers will spend the first two-thirds of The New Pope missing Lenny, a bad boy being more entertaining than a decent man. Because the promo clips reveal that he returns, I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say that his eventual appearance is the thing that gives The New Pope purpose. God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen fit to make him more ripped than ever in his convalescence, so that by the time he reappears, emerging from a still, blue ocean in a pure-white papal speedo, we are treated to a new sequence as camp and dazzling as the first season’s LMFAO montage. Is it a dream sequence? Certainly, it is dreamy. The wink Law gives to the camera also functions figuratively, an acknowledgment of what the audience has been anticipating all this time.

“I thank God I was raised Catholic,” John Waters once said, “so sex will always be dirty.” At 73, Waters is still known as the Pope of Trash, disproving a theory posited by The Young Pope: “The young are always more extreme than the old.” Like Sorrentino, he is aware of the power of juxtaposing the divine and the profane, each quality serving to heighten the potential of the other. “At times we confuse beauty,” Lenny says, “with ecstasy.” The New Pope, as The Young Pope did before it, sometimes confuses showiness, sexiness, or transgressiveness with ecstasy, a muddling of its message that might be more troubling if it were not also often funny, daring, gorgeous, and unlike anything else on television. Malkovich has fun as Brannox, even if he does not get the loving gaze that Law gets from the camera or as much internal conflict to contend with. It is hard, though, to compete with that white speedo. If Sorrentino had created nothing but that one hilarious, indelible image, The New Pope would still have guaranteed its place in televisual heaven.