‘The Young Pope’ Series Premiere Recap: Lenny Becomes the First American Pope


The Young Pope might be one of the most insane thing ever put on television. A lot of the insanity has to do with the mere fact that it exists. It is a show — an ostensibly serious drama — that is about a pope who is young … and ambitious and a chain-smoker and a huge lover of Cherry Coke Zero. Nothing in that sentence makes any sense, and that’s the point.

There is no real reason why The Young Pope exists other than to prove that the fake shows that 30 Rock sometimes came up with as jokes actually have some basis in reality. Even if doesn’t feel real, it is a relief that The Young Pope exists because it is so ridiculous and, as a consequence, entertaining. The Young Pope is insane, campy and, thanks to the direction, extraordinarily beautiful. It is unlike anything else on TV. While The Young Pope isn’t really that great of a show, it is one that is unbelievably watchable.
Stranger Rhan Fiction
To give an idea of how weird The Young Pope is, we begin with our “hero,” Lenny Belardo — yup, the pope’s name is Lenny — crawling out of a pyramid of sleeping (or possibly dead) babies. This is where the series premiere starts, with no explanation. This is the baseline for the series. This dead baby pyramid is, thankfully, just a dream sequence, but that doesn’t mean things get normal thereafter.
After Lenny — or, under his new papal name, Pius XIII — emerges from his baby pyramid, he addresses his congregation. Lenny tells all Catholics watching that they need to have sex, get abortions, masturbate and generally do a bunch of other stuff that is definitely not okay with Catholicism. This is, of course, yet another dream sequence, but still, The Young Pope is just beginning, and reality is just as strange as the dreams.
Papal Power Politics
Lenny has his first breakfast as pope and is dismayed to find that the table is full of food. This is not because he is modest or angry at excess. It is quite the opposite, in fact. The papal breakfast table doesn’t have a Cherry Coke Zero, which is apparently all that this pope eats or, well, drinks for breakfast. Lenny has nothing short of a tantrum over the absence of his favorite soft drink.
If you are not catching on, Lenny is extremely immature, which is exactly why he was chosen. The older cardinals elected Lenny as the new pope because they thought they would be able to control him, but Lenny will not be controlled. The main opponent to Lenny’s papacy is Cardinal Voiello. Voiello is meant to be the pope’s right-hand man, but in Voiello’s mind, he is the pope’s puppet master.
Our friend Lenny quickly dissuades Voiello of that opinion. Lenny knocks Voiello down several pegs by refusing to listen to each and every one of his thoughts on Lenny’s reign as pope. Lenny lights up a cigarette and lets Voiello know that the pope’s private stock of alcohol will be brought back into the Vatican and that essentially Voiello has no power. The whole exchange is bonkers. Though, I will admit it may just seem that way because of the ridiculously fake-looking mole that is placed on the cheek of the actor playing Voiello.
Weird moles aside, though, one of the strangest things about Lenny’s domination of Voiello is that is preceded by the arrival of Lenny’s mother figure, Sister Mary. Mary — played by the awesome Annette Bening, who may very well have been tricked into doing this show — appears to be the moral compass of the show. Unlike pretty much everyone else, she is a good person, or at least she seems like one. Mary took Lenny in when he was child, raised him in the church and wants Lenny to do good and inspiring things as pope. Sadly, the only thing Lenny seems content with is amassing as much power and control as possible.
The Other Side of the Confessional
Granted, Voiello is not much better of a person. After he is neutered by Lenny, Voiello confers with his lackeys. There is something absurdly entertaining about watching old white men all over the age of 65 gossiping like high school mean girls. Voiello decides that something needs to be done about Lenny. They are determined to expose Lenny and his past. Naturally, Lenny already has them beat.
Lenny ensnares a snively priest, Don Tommaso, who receives the cardinals’ confessionals. By promising Tommaso a cardinal position, Lenny gets all the dirt on his opponents. Lenny eventually gives Tommaso his own confession. Lenny admits that he does not believe in God. It’s not really much of a bombshell since everything has told us that Lenny is a self-serving monster. There is nothing religious about him. It is at least nice to have confirmation that Lenny will be truly out for his own interests during the series.
It’s on Lenny’s blasphemous confession that the first episode ends and things are still completely insane. I have no idea who The Young Pope is targeting for its audience. It is way too un-Catholic to be meant for the faithful. It is way too campy to be taken seriously. It might be a condemnation of Americans because Lenny is the first American pope, but it really doesn’t matter. The Young Pope is just crazy enough to hold my attention.
What do you think? Will you be watching the rest of The Young Pope? Do you know what to make of the show? Whose side are we supposed to be on here? Are we meant to root for or against Lenny?
The Young Pope season 1 airs Sundays and Mondays at 9/8c on HBO.
(Image courtesy of HBO)