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We Still Have No Idea What ‘The Young Pope’ Is Going to Be

But the premiere was strong enough to make it the most intriguing show on TV

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Months ago, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald named Atlanta the winner of the TV Championship Belt on The Watch. Then … they just forgot to keep giving out the award. That’s because Atlanta had a firm grip on the belt throughout the fall. But now the show is off the air, and it’s time to recognize a new belt-holder. Here are Chris and Andy’s favorite things about HBO’s The Young Pope.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Premiere Set the Table

Chris Ryan: I just thought that it was such a unique vision. And it’s such a strong first episode in terms of just setting the table for what it sort of stands for as a show.

Andy Greenwald: I mean, this show gives so few fucks. It starts with two dream sequences. Two dream sequences! Back to back.

Ryan: Yeah, inside the Russian nesting doll.

Greenwald: And then his speech where he’s just like, “Let’s get abortions! And get gay-married!” The other cardinals are fainting. Chris, I think the word I want to use in talking about The Young Pope is “delighted.” This show delighted me.

It’s Still a Complete Mystery

Ryan: I was kind of like, “I don’t really know what this show is about.” Not in a frustrating way, but it does derail the ability to talk about it. Because I think that’s part of the reason why there was such a meme industry around it, aside from the fact that it’s a Pope who is young and who smokes. But it’s also just because, like, do you talk about things in terms of religion? Is it about power? Is about greed? Is it just a complete comedy and we’re just taking it too seriously? You get very distracted by a lot of the imagery that’s being floated across. Every shot is so incredibly well composed that it’s difficult sometimes to read in.

Greenwald: Just think about that. Think about those opening [scenes], like the shots of him walking through the Holy See. Just to drop some theater on you, just think about the blocking. Like where [showrunner Paolo Sorrentino] puts these people and what they look like. It’s so considered. I think that Sorrentino, the filmmaker, has said that he wanted to make a show about power and isolation and loneliness in a certain way.

Ryan: The Lonely Pope.

Greenwald: That doesn’t sell. The Young Pope sells. What a title. I think one of the things that’s interesting is … it could be anything still. And one of the exciting things about it is that feeling of, like, “Well, something new is happening both in front of our eyes and in terms of the world of the show and what’s it going to be.”

The Pope Is Young, but Not Chill

Greenwald: The opening speech is a little bit of a misdirect because our man Pius XIII is kind of old-school when it comes to his actual religious and political beliefs. He’s not a chill Pope. That would be a different show. And so the feeling of excitement turning into kind of looming horror is particularly relevant right now.

Ryan: It’s really important that he’s not the Chill Pope. Because I can’t think of a more boring concept than a chill Pope. Like a Pope who already doesn’t have a lot of hangs and then is also really chill when he does hang.

Greenwald: Right. Oh totally. Right. So he’s just like, he just sits there quietly.

Ryan: They’re like, “Pope, what do you want to do?” He’s just like, “Ah, I’m good. Whatever.”

Greenwald: He’s just drinking decaf soda.

Ryan: “How’s the radio?” “Works fine.”

The Details Are Astounding

Greenwald: The radio’s great. I just mean little things like that radio. That weird little Bluetooth radio. That was a decision made by a person, you know? And I feel like we — for all the gifts that we have in television at the moment, in terms of creative and artistic intent and artistic vision — to see it done in such a surprising way is still bracing and thrilling. Because we often talk about how one of the reasons Mad Men was so good wasn’t just [Matt Weiner’s] writing. It’s that he was so crazy, exact, and controlling that he would not film a scene if an ashtray was wrong. Both in terms of being where it was placed in the table and style of ashtray.

Ryan: Also not a chill Pope.

Greenwald: No. I feel like I’ve read that in Jon Hamm’s frightened eyes. Weiner is not a chill Pope. But he remains a devout Catholic. That’s the way these things work. In this case, that exactitude was in the service of a period piece in Mad Men. This is in a whatever-the-hell-it-wants-to-be piece. So you can put Cherry Coke Zero into this world and you’re like, “OK.” There is just a lack of piety in terms of the artistic vision that is thrilling.

Ryan: It’s bracing because the show itself sort of fawns over and savors all the ritual of the Catholic Church but doesn’t actually go too deeply inside of what the psychology or the inner journey that people must have when they’re engaged in something at that level. When they’re engaged in a relationship with God at that level.

Don’t Expect ‘The Young Pope’ to Keep the Belt for Long

Ryan: I’m just going to throw the caveat in that it’s a very active time in the television landscape, so expect some handing over soon.

Greenwald: Don’t get comfortable in the Pope-mobile, Paolo Sorrentino.

Ryan: Don’t sit in your … is it vestments?

Greenwald: Vestments. The papal grasp on this is light at the moment. It is very active time.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.