First look UK TV review: The New Pope
Ivan Radford | On 12, Jan 2020
Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Young Pope. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free review of The Young Popehere.
“I do not perform miracles.” Those are the words of Pius XIII (Jude Law), aka. Lenny, the Catholic Church’s first American pope. He swaggered into the Vatican in 2016, crowned The Young Pope by Paulo Sorrentino, and to say he shook things up for the Holy See is an understatement. Now, several years later, he’s embarking on a second coming in The New Pope, and the return of His Holiness is a majestic cause for celebration.
Sorrentino has always been a filmmaker with a strong belief in the power of the profane as well as the sacred, juxtaposing the two with an unshakeable faith in their unholy union. It’s no surprise, then, that his first TV show was about the Vatican, one of the wealthiest states and organisations on the planet. What was a surprise, though, was how sincere the series was, not only in its plumbing of political depths but in its study of faith too; for all the gratuitous and adult content, it was a serious study of religion, personal and institutional, and forgiveness.
The New Pope builds upon that rock with a deceptively subtle meditation on grief and healing, married with an thoughtful exploration of identity and duty. It picks up after the events of Season 1, which saw Pius XIII suffer a cardiac arrest while addressing a crowd visibly in public. Many months on, he’s in a coma, trapped somewhere between life and death. If he passes away, he’s an icon to be remembered. If he recovers consciousness, he’s a miracle to be revered.
What he isn’t, though, is the Pope, and so the Catholic Church move to appoint a new leader. The first choice is a scathing indictment of the Church’s wealth in an age of inequality and poverty, which also delves into the complex wheels and machinations of authority in the Church’s hidden corridors of power – once again embodied by the wonderfully enigmatic, staunchly traditional and often self-serving Cardinal Voiello (played with a conspiratorial smile yet also real kindness by Silvio Orlando). And, when that lands everyone in muddier water, they turn to John Brannox, an English theologian who is famous for publishing his Third Way manifesto, a moderate and centrist outlook that is considered the answer to steadying the Catholic ship.
John Malkovich plays Brannox with an astonishing level of depth, turning what could have been a camp, over-the-top role into one of beautiful introspection; Brannox lives in a stately home with his sick parents, who are incapacitated by grief for the loss of his twin brother when both boys were young. John, too, is hobbled by his mourning, and weighed down by the question of whether to accept the call to become the leader of the Catholic Church. He is as flawed as he is pious, and as open about that as he is closed on matters such as changing his daily bedtime routine.
But while this eponymous new Pope is a wonderful creation to marvel at in his own right, Sorrentino’s sophomore season really comes to life when we glimpse returns of Pius XIII. Played by Jude Law with that same knowing grin (a vision of him on a beach in tight white swimming trunks once again reprises that signature wink from Season 1’s opening), he appears, guardian angel-like, to other characters with a newfound stillness and patience. He’s not entirely sure what is happening to him or why, and his very presence raises the question of who – and what – he is. If he’s not the Pope anymore, is he a saint? A reincarnation of the Messiah? Or is he just Lenny, a man who claims coincidences in place of miracles – a claim that we suspect may be out of denial more than anything else. Season 1 asked what if the Pope didn’t believe in God. Season 2 asks what if the Pope believed in himself.
By juggling both Popes together, The New Pope opens up all new questions about what that title and office means, offering tantalising hints of what might well be acts of divine intervention even as they’re grounded in heart-wrenching discussions of loss, regret and detachment. In between the secrets, the soul-searching and the desperate prayers for guidance, Sorrentino still finds room to flesh out the supporting cast, giving time and space to a cardinal who was abused as a child, another cardinal who has now retired for simpler pleasures, or a believer whose marriage is in need of renewed passion.
Sorrentino films it all with a jaw-dropping artistry that finds parallels and echoes between modern life and Michelangelo’s Pietà, between youth and age, between conviction and doubt, and between death and life. It’s exquisitely crafted television, paced with a confidence that’s matched only by its careful attention to detail – a dazzling, mature piece of art that dives into theological debates with an arch eyebrow and an open heart. The result is one of the most profound pieces of television since The Leftovers, and a contender for one of the handsomest, and most honest, shows of 2020. If you’ve never seen The Young Pope, go back and catch up – then prepare to be converted.
The New Pope premieres with a double-bill at 9pm on Sky Atlantic on Sunday 12th January. All episodes of The Young Pope are also available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.
Photo: GIANNI FIORITO / Sky Atlantic