The Young Pope Sundays & Mondays, 9 p.m., HBO. Premieres January 15.
The movies of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (Youth, the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty) are full of gorgeous, striking images, but they’re often more impressionistic than narratively coherent. That’s a bigger liability for a long-form TV series than for a feature film, and Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope (co-produced with French and British TV networks) surrounds occasionally impressive sequences with a muddled narrative, starring an inscrutable main character whose inconsistent behavior is as frustrating for the audience as it is for his peers.
Jude Law plays the title character, an American named Lenny Belardo who is somewhat unexpectedly elected Pope at the relatively young age of 47. Although his election was meant as a compromise, Lenny turns out to be the opposite of a peacemaker. He’s arrogant, mercurial and often cruel, taking the church in an austere, uncompromising direction that has the potential to undo decades of outreach. But he’s also haunted and insecure, tormented by the memory of the parents who abandoned him as a young child and eager for the approval of the nun who raised him (played by Diane Keaton).
He’s more or less Don Draper as the head of the Catholic church, but the show doesn’t have the character depth of Mad Men, at least in the first half of its 10-episode first season (it has already been renewed for a second in Europe). It’s often too straight-faced to be satirical, and the hodge-podge of accents sometimes undercuts the dramatic intensity. Every so often, Sorrentino (who directed and wrote or co-wrote every episode) breaks out an entertaining moment, like a swaggering montage of Lenny getting dressed in Pope finery set to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” but then it’s right back to uninspired scheming and half-hearted musings on the existence of God. Law’s smug smirk can only carry the show so far.