In keeping with the subject matter at hand, a confession: Of all of the limited series stretching past said limits due to popular demand, for me, The New Pope was the greatest cause for concern. Big Little Lies was, at its core, a crowd-pleasing soap; a fan service-filled follow-up may have disappointed, but it didn’t detract from the original, it only failed to match it. Even a misfire like Top of the Lake: China Girl felt akin to a lesser installment of a detective series, a modular, isolated adventure in a genre chock-full of them.
Paolo Sorrentino’s surreal vision of the papacy, however, was one of a kind from the start. Starring Jude Law as a pontiff who acted like a petulant child and looked, well, like Jude Law, The Young Pope delighted first as a histrionic trailer, then as a deliberately tongue-in-cheek fever dream, and finally as a sincerely emotional coming-of-age show. The result was the finest show of the year, and what would have been the best show of the past two years. Like its namesake, The Young Pope was special, unlikely, and concluded its journey with a powerful, seemingly definitive catharsis. Why risk diluting its legacy, even with John Malkovich?
Minutes into The New Pope’s premiere, viewers are consoled by a room of nuns dancing to Sofi Tukker, slow-motion gyrating in the light of a neon cross. It’s not quite Lenny Belardo strolling down a hallway to “All Along the Watchtower,” but it is confirmation that Sorrentino’s signature has survived a papal transition intact—and that the return trip would be worth it even if The New Pope was nine hours of credit sequences alone.
If The Young Pope, with its contradictory mix of absurdist excess and earnest purity, was a worthy successor to Twin Peaks, The New Pope is Sorrentino’s answer to Twin Peaks: The Return. Both the Italian auteur and his obvious influence David Lynch are film directors who successfully Trojan Horse-d their eccentricities into TV. (Though HBO, Sky Atlantic, and Canal+ have proved to be more willing co-conspirators than early-’90s ABC.) And in both cases, unconventional projects have led to unconventional sequels, bucking the impulse to deliver happy reunions in favor of something less instantly appealing, if ultimately more rewarding. At least Sorrentino and his cast didn’t have to wait 30 years.
As the analogy implies, The New Pope proves a tougher sit than its predecessor. But even at its lowest points, the Vatican extended universe has an irrepressible joie de vivre, and Sorrentino stages one spectacular tableau after another to prove it’s still there: a publicist giving a group of monks the finger; a nun with dwarfism smoking a cigar; Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone playing themselves. But these images appear in a very different context than The Young Pope’s kangaroos and Cherry Coke Zeros. In 10 episodes, The Young Pope established Lenny, better known as Pope Pius XIII, as a man with actual God-given superpowers who is as capable of working miracles as he is sowing chaos. But by the time Lenny worked through his abandonment issues and learned to use his abilities for good, he collapsed mid-speech. Nine months later, he’s still in a comatose state, forcing both the fictional Church and actual viewers to stare down an awkward question: If Pius truly was a sort of messiah, what is the world like now that he’s gone?
In a word: lost. As in real life, The New Pope’s Catholic Church is beset on all sides by existential threats, some of its own making. The scandal of mass child abuse continues to rage; Muslim zealots direct their followers against the Christian West; a secular world is increasingly disinterested in organized religion. And The New Pope’s characters are as adrift individually as their world is collectively. Without Pius to assist, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) is a world-class schemer lacking a vision to execute, while Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) has seen her miracle pregnancy give way to the hard realities of single motherhood. They’re haunted by Pius’s memory, often literally. Law’s presence is hardly a surprise—he retains top billing, along with Malkovich—but he’s limited to cameos in other characters’ dreams and fantasies, at least at first.
Throughout this angst, Pius lies dormant. He’s the Dougie Jones of this whole affair: a tantalizing, frustrating presence who has to activate at some point, though it’s unclear how or when. In the meantime, Voiello works to fill the vacuum, eventually landing on the cardinal who gives The New Pope its name: Sir John Brannox, an English aristocrat turned ecclesiastical superstar.
At first glance, John Brannox appears to share quite a lot with Lenny Belardo. Both men are of nationalities that make them anomalous fits for the papacy—Lenny as its first American, John as its second Englishman and first in almost 900 years. Both cut unorthodox figures within a highly orthodox hierarchy. John is no brash New Yorker, but he is a dandy who prefers lounging around his estate in eye makeup and fabulous suits to leading a congregation. Even the two men’s childhood traumas are nearly inverses of one another: Lenny is a destitute orphan, while John’s aristocratic parents resent him for the premature death of his twin brother Adam. One wonders if Sorrentino, who directed and cowrote every episode, is setting up a papal anthology, and each season is a character study of a new iconoclast.
Except the point, it gradually becomes clear, is that Brannox is not Belardo. Lenny has transcended his youthful hang-ups, but John is still in their clutches; he lacks Lenny’s will, resolve, and Chosen One spark, and as a result, the Church starts to suffer. As a viewing experience, The New Pope is decidedly sadder and heavier than The Young Pope, perhaps because that was its only option. This second season also lacks the crucial advantage of surprise. In a world where Lenny already lights up in the Vatican, it’s slightly more expected when a menacing enforcer starts vaping; after Lenny has freely discussed how handsome he is, it’s slightly less disarming when John, played by Malkovich, says Malkovich isn’t his favorite actor. Without novelty and the disorientation that comes with it, there’s less to distract from The New Pope’s relative darkness. Pius is this story’s centripetal force, and The New Pope works to instill the sense of depression and aimlessness left by his sudden absence.
The New Pope demands patience, even if it rewards that patience in the end. Following Fleabag, The Two Popes, and countless other pop cultural pontiffs, Sorrentino’s fever dream builds on and stands apart from millennia of Catholic anxieties. Somehow, the tale of Lenny and John keeps with generations of baroque iconography while also being a blasphemous perversion of them. It’s all right there in the gyrating nuns. That bizarre, wonderful, utterly unique show you like has come back in style.