Jude Law (above) plays a Pope who seems to be part-Bond villain and part-saint in The Young Pope. Photo: HBO / Instagram
The very idea of a show about the world of Vatican politics sounds a little sacrilegious.
Yet The Young Pope has been a hit in predominantly Catholic Italy, where viewers cannot get enough of Jude Law as the fictional Pius XIII, an unorthodox new pontiff whose unpredictability flummoxes his clergy and flock.
There are a few things in this show by Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, 2013) that you can imagine the devout taking exception to.
For starters, he envisions the Pope, along with other senior clergy, as ruthless, power-hungry, hypocritical, narcissistic and vengeful, and suggests he might doubt the existence of God.
But maybe this is what struck a chord with Italian viewers, for showing men of cloth with feet of clay also makes them infinitely more relatable, and Sorrentino’s flair for quirky detail, comic exaggeration and edgy cinematography makes them extremely watchable – the Pope’s defiant smoking and addiction to Cherry Coke Zero, for instance, lending a vivid intimacy to this world.
For progressive Catholics, watching the pilot’s opening sequence, in which the Pope dreams of giving a scandalously liberal sermon or seeing him make pompous church officials squirm, might also serve as wish-fulfilment.
Interestingly, Sorrentino says the character has some basis in fact – Vatican experts told him that after a progressive populist such as Pope Francis, the cardinals might elect someone with radically different ideas.
This Pope is thus an ultra- conservative who is scornful of the masses, delivering, for his first homily, a fire-and-brimstone scolding that alienates the adoring crowds in St Peter’s Square, to whom he says: “I don’t know if you deserve me.”
But he is also nothing if not contradictory, imposing a media ban on using his image and torpedoing plans to put it on €45 plates and other merchandise that earn an obscene amount for the church, which echoes the story of Jesus casting out the money- changers from the temple.
Two episodes in, it is hard to say where the show is heading with all this.
Already, there are troubling hints that Law’s character may become nothing more than a pastiche of cartoonish character tropes – part-Bond villain and part-saint – and that the writers may be flirting with the idea that he has an actual divine connection, which would dull the satirical edge.
But at this stage, it is fun and intriguing enough to stick around for the ride.
A scene from Six, about the Navy Seals’ famous Seal Team Six. Photo: History Channel
Another new show, Six, is also a work of fiction inspired by larger- than-life figures: in this case, the members of Seal Team Six, the elite team of Navy Seals that famously killed Osama bin Laden.
Supposedly based on real missions, the eight-part drama series starts with one in Afghanistan that ends badly: Rip (Walton Goggins), the once- stalwart troop leader, snaps and summarily executes an unarmed man who had surrendered.
His teammates cover it up, but it divides them. Rip then leaves to become a mercenary, but a few years later, he is captured, along with a group of schoolgirls, by the militant group Boko Haram. His former teammates must then come together to rescue him, while Rip has to learn once again to do the right thing.
The writers get credit for delving into the Seals’ home life and looking at the real problems soldiers such as these often face off the field – post-traumatic stress, troubled family lives and struggling to make ends meet.
Beyond that, however, the three episodes previewed are uninspired.
The first 10 minutes or so of Episode 1 are like a shoot-’em-up video game and not in a good way – they plunge viewers into a battle scene they have seen many times before, with no context except a cursory mention of a terrorist named Mutaqi.
The show clearly trades on the idea of the Seals having a unique bond and culture. But, again, this is examined with little imagination. All you get are war-movie cliches – banter between alpha-male types with names such as Bear and Buddha, character-building training scenes and a clumsily edited montage to show Rip losing his way.
And it leaves you none the wiser about what exactly makes Seal Team Six so special.
There are a few attempts to address the moral ambiguities of their mission and tactics, but the writers are either too reverential to find a critical foothold or too cynical to set aside the video-game mindset.
The portrayals of Navy Seals in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Lone Survivor (2013) did more with less time, conveying both the visceral messiness of war and the political context the men operate in.
Without that, this risks becoming a mindless show glorifying senseless conflicts.
The original version of this story was published in The Straits Times on January 26, 2017.