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.