BINGE-R #37: The Young Pope + 12 Monkeys

BINGE-R #37: The Young Pope + 12 Monkeys

Smoke on the Water: Jude Law (Pope Pius XIII) in SBS on Demand’s  The Young Pope

Smoke on the Water: Jude Law (Pope Pius XIII) in SBS on Demand’s The Young Pope


Streaming Service: SBS on Demand

Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming

The Holy Spirit is perverse and unpredictable in The Young Pope, the new SBS on Demand series where Jude Law plays a renegade American pontiff who imposes his considerable will on the Vatican. Posing in his white robes and throwing his arms skyward, Law turns ironic playfulness into a form of piety – his Lenny Bilardo, a 47-year-old American archbishop newly installed as Pope Pius XIII, possibly may not believe in God, or at least God’s connection to him, but he certainly makes every encounter a test of his self-belief. The show has a weird, wonderful gravity, as if the immensity of Lenny’s elevation has freed him, and the storylines, from rational bounds.

This is a signature piece of auteur TV. The Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino created, co-wrote and directed The Young Pope, and from the opening sequence his tracking shots that slowly engage with deliciously odd tableaus are a perfect representation of a newcomer engaging the Catholic Church hierarchy. In Sorrentino’s movies, which most recently include The Great Beauty and Youth, the profound and the ludicrous are not contradictory, but rather complementary – one leads into the other and back again. The nun who raised Lenny when he was abandoned by his parents, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), speaks of “an immense perspective”, and that’s a lens Sorrentino understands all too well.

As the spiritual leader of one billion Catholics, Lenny should be at the centre of that television staple: the cunning and cruelty of power being exercised. But the Pontiff’s pull is such that even the plotting courtiers are but irritants, and the focus leans to Lenny’s appetite for inciting institutional chaos. Citing Daft Punk and Banksy as examples to his head of marketing, Sofia (Cecile de France), Lenny refuses to be photographed and revives conservative beliefs; the idea of baptising babies is “torture”. “There’s a new Pope now,” he says, much the same way that a righteous cowboy announces he’s become sheriff.

The initial episodes don’t pin Lenny down, whether he’s dealing with his thwarted former mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), or exchanging glances with the kangaroo despatched as a present by the Australian government. Jude Law hasn’t played a character this cocky in many years, and he struts through credit sequences and exults in Lenny’s immaculate connections. In one extended close-up he’s lit from below, like a villain in a noir thriller, and Lenny’s own confessions have a literal devil may care freedom. Exquisitely executed, the first three episodes are strangely intoxicating, and the only faith required is in Paolo Sorrentino’s ability to sustain this sly, sumptuous concoction over an entire season.

>> Bonus Binge: If you’re in the mood for more Paolo Sorrentino, Stan has his excellent 2013 feature The Great Beauty, which tracks a jaded Roman journalist’s spiritual crisis. The Sorrentino movie most closely related to The Young Pope is 2008’s Il Divo, a shadowy biopic on SBS on Demand that documents the interior life of the late Giulio Andreotti, who was seven times Prime Minister of Italy and repeatedly connected to scandal.

Time May Change Him: Aaron Stanford (Cole) and Amanda Schull (Cassie) in Netflix’s  12 Monkeys

Time May Change Him: Aaron Stanford (Cole) and Amanda Schull (Cassie) in Netflix’s 12 Monkeys


Streaming Service: Netflix

Availability: All 13 episodes now streaming

12 Monkeys is third generation I.P. This science-fiction mystery, which ricochets through time, is a long form reboot of Terry Gilliam’s mercurial 1995 film, which in turn excavated Chris Marker’s 1962 magisterial black and white short La Jetee, which was composed almost entirely in photographic stills. You can make the case that as the running time gets longer the inspiration recedes, but this latest iteration is solidly constructed. It hits the ground running and lays down enough end of the world conspiracies and contributors that it will keep those open to the genre intrigued (Netflix has season one and two available, three has aired elsewhere and should follow, with a concluding fourth season is in production).

Sent back from the post-apocalyptic ruins of 2043, where scientists are using time travel to try and avert the 2017 virus that will kill seven billion people, James Cole (Aaron Stanford) soon finds changing the future isn’t as easy as finding virologist Cassie Railly (Amanda Schull), who will leave a clue-laden recording, or even a possible target, CEO Leland Goines (Zeljko Ivanek). Plot strands keep tying themselves around the pair’s intermittent investigation, which is smartly informed by the guilt that Cole carries from his actions in his youth, where he once ran with scavengers, and Cassie’s fearful advance knowledge that she will be a witness to the end of the world and her own death.

Unlike Netflix’s other program about last chance operatives from a dystopic future, Travelers [review here], 12 Monkeys gives you plenty of the ravaged 2043, where the great German actor Barbara Sukowa holds sway as Cole’s handler. The way that Cole is tugged back and forth – time travel is an inexact and temporary procedure – gives the narrative a melancholy that’s an echo of the earlier versions’ appeal. Cole keeps encountering people, such as the unnamed operative of the virus-seeking organisation he uncovers that’s played by the perpetually creepy Tom Noonan, who’ve met him in a time he hasn’t yet experienced, which teases him onwards. It’s an apt reflection of binge watching’s tug of one more episode.

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