As with any good dream, The New Pope isn’t subtle.Gianni Fiorito / HBO

This post contains minor spoilers for The New Pope.

The pope: so hot right now. When Pope Francis swatted away a grabby congregant in St. Peter’s Square on New Year’s Eve, his look of annoyance gave the Vatican a viral moment on the secular internet. That flap felt like something out of Netflix’s The Two Popes, a peppery portrayal of recent history starring Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. Or it could have been a scene from HBO’s The New Pope, the new and retitled second season of The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s surreal dramedy that captivated and perplexed viewers in 2017. All three instances of entertaining papal drama—the real-life snafu, the Oscar-baiting movie, and, most notably, the prestige TV show—represent unmaskings, though there’s something deeper going on than the simple reminder that the pope is a person.  

The Young Pope, after all, did not merely bait meme-makers by imagining a pope who was also a pinup. The show plumbed how a holy figure’s personal hang-ups might shape his theology, and examined how persona—looks, manners, loafers—would figure into that theology’s reception. Jude Law’s Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo) radiated sexuality, sarcasm, and sexy sarcastic angst as he pursued a conservative agenda and tried to intimidate the masses into faithfulness. After working out some childhood abandonment issues late in the season, he turned to more uplifting preachings—and then immediately suffered a heart attack, possibly from an overdose of saintliness.

What happens to Sorrentino’s project without Law’s cheekbones? At the start of the second season (I’ve watched five episodes), Law’s character lies in a coma. His presumed replacement, John Malkovich as the British socialite Cardinal John Brannox, cuts a marked contrast: delicate, cerebral, hesitant. A few other would-be pontiffs, one scandalously reminiscent of a real-world holy figure (no spoilers, but get ready for the takes), enter the picture too. Yet for the most part the series is as delicious as it was before, which is to say it’s delicious if you have a taste for TV that resembles a visual album, dialogue that sounds like mistranslated tweets, and nuns who dance to club beats, which you should.

The true anchor of the series, it’s now clear, is not any particular pope-star but rather Sorrentino’s strange artistic vision. He films with his tongue in cheek but also with his knees on the ground: camp and awe, irony and earnestness, presented as one singular reaction to the incomprehensible. There are similarities between his show and Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, including an eye for hypnotic patterns in Church pageantry, as well as an interest in juxtaposing the sacred and the secular. Both works, for example, feature papal elections set to exciting dance music. But Meirelles’s movie rivets because it is overlit and info-packed, imitating news footage. Sorrentino films like he’s painting and writes like he’s dreaming, both of which mean he’s in no hurry.

As with any good dream, The New Pope isn’t subtle. The season opens with lengthy reveries of worshipful masturbation and a gory heart transplant after Pius’s collapse, tipping at motifs of sex and death, not to mention dicey gender politics (Sorrentino has an off-putting reverence for virgin/whore paradigms). By the time the show gets to laying out an actual story, it does so with such blurted briskness that Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Voiello thanks another character “for your expository clarity.” That exposition: With Pius laid up, idol-worshipping cults have risen and Islamic terrorists have issued threats. To regain stability, the Church will have to select a new pope—and Cardinal Voiello, whose secretive machinations have long made him the most influential person in the Vatican, thinks it should be him.

The diminutive and expressively eyebrowed Voiello, played by Silvio Orlando, provided an impish counterweight to Belardo’s grandiosity in The Young Pope. Now he is close to the hero or antihero of The New Pope, and there’s a tragic poignance to him wanting the Church’s highest seat while lacking the charisma to make it a slam dunk. Certainly his maneuverings have a murderous edge, yet he’s appealingly workmanlike, devoted only to God and the Napoli soccer club. Not only does his soccer fandom recall real-world clergy—Francis, The Two Popes reminded viewers, loves the sport—but it also stands out as a way for Sorrentino to portray holy men as men, possessing hobbies and foibles like any other. Malkovich’s character, a fan of Marilyn Manson and friend of Meghan Markle who is caught up in the banal psychodrama of trying to please his parents, embodies that insight as well.

But the substance of Sorrentino’s work, and much of pop culture’s fascination with the pope, lies in what comes after the worshipper’s realization that God’s agents are only human. The Church, in fiction and in life, has weathered small embarrassments (Francis’s on-camera lapse of composure) and damning revelations (the sexual-abuse crisis). Yet it soldiers on, largely unchanged, after every lifting of the hem. When infallibility trumps fallibility over 2,000 years of scandal, it necessarily becomes spectacle. Call it cognitive dissonance, call it magic, call it the divine—you can’t help but want to understand how it works. In The New Pope, Lenny Belardo’s improbable survival after heart failure is like the Church’s and like Christ’s: one of the greatest shows on Earth. That’s a title that Sorrentino’s series, in its most fully realized moments, can claim too.

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