"Nearly everything that worked so well the first time falls apart in the new series, which becomes a languorously long, frequently cryptic epistle on the sin of letting style conquer substance," says Hank Stuever of Paolo Sorrentino's The Young Pope follow-up. "Even so, The New Pope is quite something to look at and linger over. It’s 2020’s first strong contender for television’s tl;dw award (too long; didn’t watch). Having rolled around in all nine hours of The New Pope, much of that time spent in a state of confoundment (and letdown, since I was a big fan of Sorrentino’s earlier effort), I wonder if timing might be the real issue here? The Young Pope serendipitously premiered in the days leading up to President Trump’s inauguration, and its overall metaphor, while unintended, seemed eerily apt. Jude Law starred (and returns here) as Cardinal Lenny Belardo, the surprise choice among his fellow cardinals to be the next pontiff. Taking the name Pius XIII, he was a hard-line (and hard-bodied) pope. His address at St. Peter’s Square detonated in a way similar to Sean Spicer’s first White House news conference — a tantrum of new rules and a rejection of old-school protocol...The Young Pope ended on a note of ascension. Pius collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest. Some viewers logically presumed he died, as the camera zoomed upward from his beatific face, away from Earth and into the cosmic heavens. Then and especially now, there’s a strong argument for leaving it there."
The New Pope is Paolo Sorrentino's answer to Twin Peaks: The Return: "If The Young Pope, with its contradictory mix of absurdist excess and earnest purity, was a worthy successor to Twin Peaks, The New Pope is Sorrentino’s answer to Twin Peaks: The Return," says Alison Herman. "Both the Italian auteur and his obvious influence David Lynch are film directors who successfully Trojan Horse-d their eccentricities into TV. (Though HBO, Sky Atlantic, and Canal+ have proved to be more willing co-conspirators than early-’90s ABC.) And in both cases, unconventional projects have led to unconventional sequels, bucking the impulse to deliver happy reunions in favor of something less instantly appealing, if ultimately more rewarding. At least Sorrentino and his cast didn’t have to wait 30 years. s the analogy implies, The New Pope proves a tougher sit than its predecessor. But even at its lowest points, the Vatican extended universe has an irrepressible joie de vivre, and Sorrentino stages one spectacular tableau after another to prove it’s still there: a publicist giving a group of monks the finger; a nun with dwarfism smoking a cigar; Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone playing themselves."
The New Pope is a confusing, criminal waste of A-list weirdo talent: "Most actors would merely say that they 'weep for the inexhaustible imperfection of the world,'" says David Fear. "(John) Malkovich turns into the phrase into a seven-word soliloquy. ('The man seems to be made of velvet,' one person says of Brannox. Truer words, etc.) Given his newfound power, the pope asks to meet Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone. The first encounter is a study in celebrity awkwardness. The second begins with a tired Basic Instinct, joke then turns into a spirited debate on gay men serving as priests. It’s the actor at the center of these vignettes that makes them feel more substantial then they actually are. Yet The New Pope quickly runs out of things to do with 'Il Papa Punk' and the wonderfully, unpredictable idiosyncratic man playing him, giving him one great speech to speak (we pray you) and a lot of world-weary sighs to sigh, then practically relegating him to the sidelines. It’s a confusing, criminal waste of A-list weirdo talent. Other narratives involving Islamic terrorists provoking a holy war that leads back to Vatican City and a group of empowered nuns fighting for their rights (cue: a tattoo of a Mother Superior with an upraised fist) bump up against Brannox/John Paul III, but to seemingly little effect."
The New Pope cuts even deeper in Season 2: "Unlike plenty of real-life homilies, The New Pope knows which of its moments are honestly enlightening and which are empty, irrelevant gestures," says Ben Travers. "Sorrentino, and his co-writers Umberto Contrarello and Stefano Bises, recognize the dual aspects of organized religion the Catholic Church historically will not: Faith is rooted in significance and absurdity. By acknowledging both, The New Pope honors and eviscerates its central subject. The lengthy speechifying can build to moving revelations, just as the outrageous jokes make for purposeful hilarity — and vice versa. The former moments will slam into you with a raw, ethereal power rarely felt from TV; the latter will jerk at the sides of your mouth, eliciting a wicked grin or cackling laugh. They work together in such a way that Sorrentino’s series remains one of the most unique, enigmatic, and exhilarating television experiences that you can watch for depth, for fun, or for a wild combination of both."
The statement the show makes about the Vatican seems more muddled than ever: "In The Young Pope, we saw a church vulnerable to being overtaken by one man with a dark vision of his own potential as a transformative figure," says Daniel D'Addario. "(One of the few genuinely, Young Pope-style startling moments in the new series’s early going is an Italian radio station giving themselves over to broadcasting the comatose Pius’s breathing, 24 hours a day. The bereaved give themselves over to listening.) In The New Pope, what’s ultimately new is the gnomic unknowability of the man at the center of the intrigue. Malkovich’s often-docile, unmilitant pontiff is undercut yet further by the repetitiousness of the plot around him (the cardinals wonder if they’ve made a mistake, again) and by interactions with celebrities cameoing — from a blandly likable Marilyn Manson to a badly misused Sharon Stone. The Pope asks (Sharon) Stone, as herself, to refrain from uncrossing and recrossing her legs in front of him, a joke warmed over from 1992 about a genuinely able performer."
The New Pope often meanders in its excess too long without staying put: "It’s less a story than a sermon with too many subjects, taking on greed, and sex, and faith, and corruption but only in general, arms-length terms," says Vinnie Mancuso. "Much like The Young Pope, the structure of The New Pope actively works against expectations built from American TV. (Not surprising, considering it’s a Sky Atlantic co-production from the mind of an Italian Oscar-winner.) There’s no mystery box to solve, no clear protagonist or antagonist, and at every place your normal HBO drama would zig-zag, The New Pope either plows straight ahead or stops completely. It’s refreshing as hell, but you also want that story promised by the title, that push-pull between Brannox and Pius XIII, something the show only seems tangentially interested in."
At what point did Sorrentino realize a sequel had to be made?: "During the editing of The Young Pope, it was a moment in Europe when there were a lot of terrorist attacks in France," he tells Vulture. "I had this idea to use the coma of Lenny in order to have him as a sort of person that could be a saint, a guy that can wake up without a reasonable medical explanation. This could be something that, in my mind, could bring a risk of Catholic fundamentalism against the Islamic fundamentalism that, in that moment, was very strong and present in our lives. Of course, in order to have the pope in a coma, the Church, for several political reasons, must have a new pope. So that’s where we got to the idea of two popes."