Seriously, who could’ve imagined that a TV series called The Young Pope would actually prove to be great in a totally unironic way? I wanted to hate this series and the entire hype campaign that brought it to my attention. And now here I am, forced to repent.
The series’ early buzz was largely due to memes, powered by GIFs, and summarized by screencaps of Jude Law in various states of irreverence. You’d be forgiven for underestimating The Young Pope’s broader, foremost strength: its characters. After all, The Young Pope is an ensemble workplace drama; the setting just so happens to be the Vatican, which is just as petty and fascinating as the White House or Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. Where the Buckingham Palace of The Crown is a cold and cavernous water cooler, the Vatican of The Young Pope is basically the holiest high school on earth.
I thought I’d have a hard time picking favorites among The Young Pope’s characters — until I remembered that I write for the internet and was genetically engineered to rank subjects for a living. Now that The Young Pope has introduced all of its main, secondary, and bit players, I’m prepared to rank only the most captivating players by their depth and level of intrigue.
Since the Harvard-educated brand manager Sofia is so worldly and smart, lemme ask her this: How come she begins the season as the Vatican’s marketing director but then inexplicably transforms into Lenny’s press secretary? This series has no idea who Sofia is or why she’s even here. (Sofia would be a useless pope.)
14. Lenny’s parents
That’s right, I’m punching Lenny’s hippie parents. And you know what? They deserve it. Lenny’s unnamed mother and father abandon him at a young age, leaving their son at the gates of a rural Catholic orphanage in the American Northeast. The mysteries of his parents’ identities and disappearance haunt Pope Pius XIII throughout Season 1, threatening to derail his young papacy at various turns. At worst, Lenny’s parents are gratuitous flashback fodder, burdening the season with an origin story that deploys an admittedly fascinating proposition (what if the pope was an incurable narcissist?) at the expense of the show’s broader pitch (what if the pope were Sherlock, Dr. House, and President Bartlet all rolled into one). Lenny’s parents rarely speak, and instead simply float through various dream sequences of vague figurative importance. (I doubt Lenny’s parents were even Catholic, much less pope material.)
If there’s a broad social complaint that I’d lodge against this show, it’s that writer and director Paolo Sorrentino has no idea what to do with women in his story or how to empower them to act on behalf of themselves. As Pope Pius XIII takes a benign interest in Esther — Cardinal Voiello’s secret agent of scandalous seduction — the infertile pawn becomes the subject of some pious eloquence and miracle-working. And that’s about all Sorrentino figures she’s good for, unfortunately. Her frequently silent, wide-eyed amazement amounts to an infuriating loss for words. (She’d probably be a decent pope.)
12. Sister Mary
There are already too many GIFs made of this show, and yet, somehow, I’ve not seen a single clip of Diane Keaton shooting hoops in various gardens. Sister Mary basically midwifes Lenny through a series of basketball-related flashbacks, having raised Lenny and Cardinal Andrew Dussolier at the U.S. orphanage before joining Pope Pius XIII in Rome to serve as his special adviser (despite the objections of Cardinal Voiello).
Sister Mary is a power player as Lenny’s enforcer and Voiello’s administrative throttle, but she’s also a blank page in the way of character development, all balling aside. Later in the season, it becomes something of a joke that Lenny and Andrew have known Sister Mary for almost all of their lives and yet know very little about her. (Would Sister Mary make a great pope? We will never know because of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith/Pope John Paul II/sexism.)
11. Archbishop Kurtwell
The show’s looming antagonist is obscured in the first half of the season as Pope Pius XIII tables the Vatican’s investigation of a child sex-abuse scandal in New York to instead confront — say it with me now — his own demons. So far, Archbishop Kurtwell is the least interesting villain in a TV season that also includes a crazed cult separatist and a hostile prime minister who both lock wits with Pope Pius XIII. (Kurtwell would most certainly make a terrible, scandalous pope.)
10. Sister Suree
Chiefly employed to make up preposterous excuses to cut the Pope’s meetings unceremoniously short, Sister Suree is the most minor character who merits inclusion in this ranking. The pope is a dick, and Sister Suree is indispensable to the allocation of said dickishness to the clergy who deserve it most. (Sister Suree could never be pope. I’m sorry, she’s the least likely fanfic papal candidate of the entire cast.)
9. Don Tommaso
In just 10 episodes, the first season of The Young Pope does a pretty great job of situating even its secondary players as potentially important and interesting in their own right. Don Tommaso is a weak and simple man, a priest so desperate to be made a cardinal that he’s immediately willing to betray the privacy of communion, spilling every cardinal’s secrets and concerns just to curry favor with the young pope. He does so nervously, with the tics of a man desperately needing a cigarette. Luckily, this pope smokes. (Don Tommaso is no pope.)
8. Cardinal Spencer
Lenny, Voiello, and Spencer — an unholy trinity of sorts — are a font of The Young Pope’s best, yet least-sophisticated writing. “You are not the pope. Lenny, I am the pope,” says Voiello. “There’s a new pope now,” says Lenny. “I was supposed to be pope!” shouts Cardinal Spencer. I could watch them dance like this forever. (As far as I’m concerned, James Cromwell was a short-lived, IRL pope at one point.)
7. Tonino Pettola
While Archbishop Kurtwell is the season’s proper bad guy, the stigmatized heretic Tonino Pettola’s antagonization of the church is a bit more ambiguous and (thus) interesting. What does this guy want? Is he a petty con artist? A truly evil lunatic? Is he simply misguided? (He’d make for a creepy, irritating pope, that much is for sure.)
6. Cardinal Dussolier
Lenny’s brooding brother-in-arms, a pretty-boy cynic who (unlike the other, insular cardinals) suffers great homesickness, Andrew Dussolier is The Young Pope’s designated goth. Dussolier does not envy Lenny, nor is he particularly eager to serve alongside him in any right-hand capacity; instead Dussolier privately suffers a midlife crisis that wrecks his self-discipline and undermines his faith in everyone. “Hot redhead cardinal weathers midlife crisis” is a worthy pilot unto itself, made especially salacious by the events of Episode 6. (As pope, Dussolier would somehow manage to be even more wildly indifferent than Pope Pius XIII. Which is to say yes, of course he should be pope.)
5. The Elder Cardinals
These guys all dine and operate in concert, so I’m grouping them together: Aguirre, Ozolins, that immortal bastard Assente, et al. Old people talk the best shit. They be knowing. (Assente should be pope for like, a day.)
4. Monsignor Gutierrez
Gutierrez is the homeschooled friend you met in freshman year of college; also, a virgin who can’t drive. Pope Pius XIII’s unlikely confidant and ultimately the deuteragonist of Season 1, Gutierrez transforms from housebound sad boy to globetrotting detective in a belated coming-of-age story that yields the season’s most poignant developments. (I love Gutierrez, but he’s not quite cut out to be pope; he’s probably not ripe for the job until he’s in his mid-90s.)
3. The Italian Prime Minister
A young, strapping, center-left secularist who smirks a lot — think Evil Justin Trudeau — the unnamed Italian prime minister is, for my money’s worth, the real MVP of The Young Pope’s rogues gallery. In Episode 6, which airs Monday night, Pope Pius XIII meets with the prime minister after months of delays, and their introduction quickly devolves into a pissing match between two mutually contemptuous public figures. The prime minister is quick to remind Pope Pius XIII that Italy literally has the Holy See surrounded, and Pope Pius XIII is subsequently quick to weigh the world’s Catholics against the prime minister’s plurality share of the popular vote. There can be only one, and I can’t wait for these knuckleheads to duke it out in Season 2. (The Italian prime minister is the Antichrist.)
2. Pope Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo)
Pope Pius XIII is just the latest offspring of a great dramatic lineage. Above all other TV drama protagonists of the Rude Dude Genius variety, I would compare Pope Pius XIII to Dr. House: both miracle workers, the former being a would-be saint, the latter anything but. The pope is young; he’s rude; he feeds off gossip and Cherry Coke Zero; he hides from public view and only occasionally emerges to spew contempt upon his tens of thousands of followers gathered in St. Peter’s Square; and he lives out his papacy as a wicked series of EDM drops. Jude Law deserves every possible Best Actor in a TV Series award for delivering the most brutally obnoxious lead male actor performance since Denzel Washington in Training Day. (Alonzo Harris would’ve made a great pope.)
1. Cardinal Voiello
Lenny’s whole shtick is his incessant, destructive cultivation of personal mystery crafted at the expense of good relations with his colleagues and general reassurance of the faithful. And yet it’s Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, who most frequently defies our expectations of how a disgruntled papal conclave also-ran might handle rejection and the indefinite subordination to a madman that follows. Unlike the aging Cardinal Spencer — who angrily resigns himself to marginalization now that he’ll never be pope — Voiello works across a few stages of grief: anger, bargaining, acceptance.
Initially meaning to manipulate the young pope as a puppet, and then hell-bent on destroying him once he realizes his rival is too independent and radical for his own good, Voiello gradually comes to regard Pope Pius XIII’s fluke papacy as a stress test of the Vatican as well as his own faith. From his colorful shorts-jersey combos to the fact that actor Silvio Orlando wears a prosthetic mole on his left cheek to play his character for some unexplained reason, Voiello is The Young Pope’s biggest enigma. Which, to be clear, isn’t me endorsing Voiello’s bid for pope. Jude Law is the pope. That’s already settled.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.