‘The Young Pope’ and the Trump-ification of Media Coverage

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What does HBO’s “The Young Pope” have to do with incoming President Donald Trump? Depends who’s asking.

For the past week or so, I’ve been in and out of the winter edition of the biannual TV Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, California, listening as reporters who cover TV, from around the U.S. and Canada, pepper TV execs, producers, writers, actors, etc. with questions about new shows.

The political bent of this group probably matches any other set of mainstream reporters and bloggers, which is to say, they’re not generally happy about President-elect Trump being inaugurated on Friday. We’ve been treated to questions like, “What’s it like doing a (fill-in-the-blank subgenre) drama during the age of Trump?” “What’s it like being a comedian during the age of Trump?” “How will the public perception of your show change during the age of Trump?” “Did your own perception of your show change during the age of Trump?”

And he’s not even inaugurated until Friday.

Right now, I’m sitting in a session for next summer’s “Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark,” a PBS series in which a photographer captures images of endangered species (you should watch it; the photos and the stories behind them are amazing).

The first, FIRST, question was about Trump’s sons being hunters.

I kid you not.

It even came up — subtly and with a nod to Brexit — during the press conference for HBO’s 10-episode “The Young Pope,” which premiered on Sunday, Jan. 15 (and airs again tonight, and then on Sundays and Mondays for the next four weeks). The panel for the session featured star Jude Law, Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino and his translator, Italian journalist Silvia Bizio.

QUESTION:  For Paolo.  I really found it very interesting in terms of the politics. Obviously, the personal matters and the spiritual matters were very interesting to me as well. But I think that, to me, it reflected a fear of the rise of the strongman, the rise of the cult of personality in people’s desperate search for certainty, which I understand that on some level. But were these fears or thoughts in your mind about the political and social movements that have been happening in Europe and now in America as well?

PAOLO SORRENTINO:  Well, when I ‑‑ I don’t know. I wrote this stuff a lot ‑‑ many years ago, so I don’t remember exactly why I wrote. But no, the idea was to investigate the world of the clergy and the contradictions and of the clergy and, in this case, of the Pope, but also of the other cardinals. And this was mostly the idea to know in the right way the clergy, not in a scandalistic way and not in another way where the priests are considered the best part of the world, but, in a serious and honest way, to investigate how they live and how they think.

I do have to take issue with Paolo, though, in terms of this being about the real Church. As I said in my review over at my Pax Culturati blog at Patheos (click here to read the whole thing — and please do, because I go into detail on the question of the risks and benefits of Catholics watching this):

Up front, let me say that HBO’s “The Young Pope” has about as much to do with the real Vatican, or with ordinary Catholics, as “Twin Peaks” did with actual day-to-day life in a small Pacific Northwest town.

One reporter, Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, did realize that it’s not all about The Donald.

But as The Young Pope becomes less aggressively offbeat, viewers are left to ponder something that isn’t a meme, that isn’t “Jude Law as the young pope!” or the false premise (which Sorrentino easily denied based on when he started writing the series) that the show is somehow a political satire on the rise of Trump. Once you get used to the exceptionally beautiful cinematography, the magnificent use of lighting and the directorial flourishes, what you’re left with is a dramedy that has morphed, before our eyes, into something more substantial.

This is not a series about Donald Trump. Neither is it about Pope Francis or Pope Benedict XVI or anything that resembles the actual Vatican or Catholic life. It’s over the top, occasionally campy, and not even close enough to reality to be considered satire. If anything, it’s a lushly mounted, surreal character study of Pope Pius XIII — former New York Cardinal Lenny Belardo — raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) in an orphanage after being abandoned by hippie parents bound for Venice.

He resembles no real pope, and no particular public figure I can think of (for what it’s worth, Donald Trump was raised by two parents whom he apparently adored). Lenny Belardo/Pope Pius XIII is a pure fictional creation, a way to explore power, faith, loneliness and interpersonal relations — and have a lot of outrageous fun with costumes, locations and lavish, bizarre visuals.

But we do have to admit, as Pope Pius XIII puts on layers of elaborate robes, topped off with the papal tiara, that popes did dress like that (and the odd cardinal still does).

But hey, as deathbed Catholic convert Oscar Wilde was wont to say, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

And, in a fantastical, weird way, we’re being talked about for 10 hours on HBO, and probably a second season. I wondered, though, why creating a fantastic world was necessary, when the real Church is strange and wonderful and deep and rich itself. So, I asked.

QUESTION:  Question for Paolo. The Church, of course, is a dramatic entity in itself. It’s got a lot of fascinating characters and fascinating stories, especially today, so why did you choose to do this really imaginative, hyper, not realistic version of the Church? What attracted you to doing that rather than dramatizing something a little closer to actual reality?

PAOLO SORRENTINO:  Because it could be possible that after Pope Francis, the next Pope, he could be somebody like the character of Jude Law. This is the thing that many experts in the Church told me.  And so the idea was to do a sort of next Pope, the future Pope. Yeah.

QUESTION:  And the series doesn’t seem to be satire at all or anything like that. What are you trying to say in this series? What was the theme you’re trying to put forward?

PAOLO SORRENTINO:  The subject is about the ‑‑ mostly about the solitude of the power and the solitude of the man and how the solitude or the loneliness of being a person to have the big question about the existence of God, about what God is for us.

In terms of a future pope, a fortysomething “conservative” (as HBO describes Pius XIII) American cardinal who may or may not believe in God seems, to put it mildly, extremely unlikely. An orthodox one is not, but it’s more likely to be someone like Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea than Archbishop (and possibly future cardinal) Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who — if you stretch the imagination — could be the sane, actually faithfully Catholic, version of Lenny Belardo.

Reviews so far have been positive, but not always for the same reasons. Click here for The Atlantic; here for Rolling Stone; here for Vox; here for AV Club; and here for The New Yorker.

PS: Is it suitable for families? Of course not, it’s HBO. There is less language and sexual content than most HBO shows (although, after “Westworld,” that’s not hard), but there’s a good amount of both.

Image: Courtesy HBO

Don’t miss a thing: head over to my other home at Pax Culturati and like my Facebook page.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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