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Prestige TV Finally Went Too Far with 'Young Pope'

HBO's newest series takes prestige television to such extremes, it almost becomes a parody of the genre.

by Corey Atad
18 January 2017, 5:00am

While Pope Francis has been busy giving the Catholic Church a more caring and progressive face, a fictional pope has been birthed in the hallowed halls of the executive offices at HBO. But this is no ordinary pope! Unlike so many popes, this one is young—relatively.

The subject of internet jokes and memes for weeks now, HBO's The Young Pope has arrived on American shores to generally positive reviews. As it turns out, taking the pope and making him young serves as an excellent setup for entertainment. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that The Young Pope doesn't much resemble the Poochie-like impression many online jokesters have had going in. Instead, it's actually a good deal stranger, funnier, more self-aware, and more grossly self-satisfied than anyone might have predicted. It's also the logical conclusion of where TV has been headed for nearly a decade: It's the height of "prestige TV"—and a rebuke of it at the same time.

It was at the 2015 TCAs that FX President John Landgraf first raised alarm bells about "peak TV," by telling the gathered television press that with more than 400 scripted series produced that year alone, TV had found itself in a content bubble. That bubble hasn't popped yet, and shows little sign of slowing given the rise of new streaming platforms that are all pushing their own original content. Landgraf was drawing attention not just to the unsustainability of the current growth model in TV, but also to the way it has both allowed for new levels of quality and creativity, while simultaneously threatening to drown out some of the brightest voices amid the volume.

Ten years ago, we saw a major shift in the television landscape, which set the stage for the current peak TV predicament. In 2007, The Sopranos finally ended, but Mad Men began. The Sopranos, with its premium cable freedom, changed the face of television. But it was Mad Men, created by ex- Sopranos producer Matthew Weiner, that led our current glut. Pitched originally to HBO, Mad Men eventually landed at AMC, a basic-cable channel that was looking to burst into the newly burgeoning original-content space. The show was a critical success, with a small-but-fervent audience, and it proved that original dramas could live outside the sanctioned spaces of network TV and premium cable, especially if the quality was high—and Mad Men was nothing if not high quality.

The decade since Mad Men has witnessed exponential growth, first on basic cable and eventually with the advent of streaming services like Netflix. While much of that peak television-scripted content is niche-targeted trash, a striking amount of it goes for niche prestige, chasing viewers who now think of television as the new cinema. As cable and streaming networks throw their money around at anybody with a good pilot script, quality—or rather, superficial markers of quality—has become increasingly necessary to stand out from the pack. But this so-called prestige TV has become less about actual quality than perceived quality—these perceptions include bigger budgets, bigger stars, acclaimed film directors, salacious premises, anti-heroes, and sex appeal. It's the feeling that you're watching something that denotes seriousness, if not in subject, then in creation. Enter: The Young Pope.

The Young Pope takes the "prestige" script and flips it on its head. The show is written and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino. It features the star power of Jude Law, Diane Keaton, and James Cromwell. It's got an anti-hero for a protagonist and enough corruption and salaciousness to make the Vatican look like House of Cards. More than that, it's big and expensive, glorious to look at, and impressively weird to boot. It has all the markings of prestige, but Sorrentino isn't content to stop there. The absurd nature of Vatican intrigue is matched by Sorrentino's absurd style. The title— The Young Pope!—sounds like a joke, but Sorrentino knows it, and he leans into this in unexpected ways.

This series opens with Jude Law, in papal garb, crawling out from a literal pyramid of babies. It features scene after scene of Jude Law, in full scenery-chewing mode, being hilariously rude to the cardinals and priests who surround him. There are total non-sequiturs, bizarre dream sequences, a surprisingly odd soundtrack, and twisted theology monologues that are as long as they are silly. There are whole scenes built around Cherry Coke Zero and extended conversations about marketing strategy for commemorative plates. Oh, and a pet kangaroo. Sorrentino, while leaning into the humor, believes he's saying something profound in all of this about the absurd vacuousness of the Catholic Church as a vehicle for the true profundity of religion. But in the same way that this sort of critique begins to eat its own tail, so does the show and its relationship with its own prestige.

If The Young Pope came across as a joke in all the hype leading up to its premiere, that joke is not lost on the series itself. Only the show spins the joke around, reveling in its own sense of scale and importance to a point of utter ridiculousness. It's a witting—though perhaps not entirely witty—jab at the structures of the Vatican that, in turn, morphs into a jab at our notions of quality television.

The Young Pope would not exist without its big budget, big-star power, big director, and big platform. That is all then subsumed into the joke of its own existence: "They made a show about a young pope? On HBO?? Starring Jude Law???" It's high-minded prestige television as high-wire circus act, that is made to grab eyeballs and generate conversation. But this isn't conversation about serious ideas, or even about the basic intrigue of the plot. It'll be an extended, weekly conversation about the absurd fact that such a show exists at all. The Young Pope is peak prestige TV, for better and for worse.

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