Not a pope, but he plays one on TV

To distract myself from my weekend Amazon promotion for Wives of the Saints, I’m binge watching the HBO series The Young Pope, which I’ve been very eager to see. This week our cable company bribed us with three month of free HBO to re-enroll with them, and even though we hate them, we took the bait. I hope to get through all ten episodes by Sunday night. But I’ve already formed an opinion about it.

First of all, I always approach that HBO stuff with a grain of salt: Most of it’s good, even very good, but usually too clever and arch and full of itself, with the slick dialogue, fancy camera tricks and ‘symbolic’ shots, along with quirky, haunting music to instruct us how to be feeling about it all. Sometimes these series just don’t seem authentic to me at all: The bells and whistles of polished production sometimes obscure the story or whatever truths they’re trying to tell. I often admire a cable miniseries, but it’s rare that I actually feel emotionally moved by one. And all this pretty much holds true for The Young Pope, although it’s a bit more complicated, watching it as a somewhat committed Catholic. I should probably be outraged or insulted by its premise. And I probably would be, if the main character wasn’t so falsely mannered, and if there wasn’t so much emphasis on ornate Vatican material culture and the tradition—which we all know isn’t really the true Church at all.

And yet, there is some authenticity in it, enough to keep me watching. The story is getting a little hard to follow, as the miniseries strains to come up with tricks and red herrings and surprises to keep us off-balance, which annoys me more than keeping me intrigued. Really not sure I buy the idea of the American “Lenny Belardo” pope, and although Jude Law makes a swoonably handsome pontiff, he just seems all wrong. It seems impossible that such a seemingly incomplete  man could be even a parish priest, let alone Archbishop of New York, cardinal, and then Pope. He’s obviously too troubled, something that would have been picked up on in seminary, and he wouldn’t have the emotional stability or social talent necessary for ecclesiastical careerism. Just my two cents! But I do enjoy the way some of the cardinals and even Pope Lenny’s own mentor are portrayed: As complex, sometimes tormented, sometimes smug, but authentic sort of men. And I’m liking very much Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary, although she’s starting to get very weird. I suppose I should wait till I’ve seen it all. Wish, too, the writers were better versed in Catholic theology—throwing in a single (and simplistic) quote from Saint Augustine on love doesn’t convince me they know any more about it than the average viewer.

All through the first few episodes, I kept wondering what Thomas Merton would make of it. I don’t believe he was  much of a TV watcher, even on the rare occasions when he had the chance; but he did love going to the movies as a youth.  He’d probably be a little intrigued at first by the perverse spectacle of it, but in the end would probably denounce it as nonsense. Which it probably is, but it’s interesting nonsense.  And it has been taking my mind off my own pathetic and persistent struggles with my art…

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