The Young Pope
Created by: Paolo Sorrentino
Premieres: Sun, Jan. 15th @ 9PM on HBO
Three episodes watched for review
One Day at a Time
Created by: Gloria Calderon Kellett & Mike Royce
Streaming Now on Netflix
Entire season watched for review
“Great television”, whatever that reductive phrase actually means, has come to define a specific type of TV. At first, that term related to the introspective, thoughtful and often violent hour-long drama in the realm of The Sopranos and The Wire. That’s shifted a bit in recent years to the “comedy in theory”, as dubbed by Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz. But the emphasis on “serious” programming has remained consistent, eschewing any value remaining in older formats like procedurals and laugh-track multi-cam sitcoms.
The first two great shows of 2017 both challenge and uphold that narrow view of the medium, appropriate to this era that has exploded past the mislabeled “Golden Age” into something more diverse (in both tone and representation). The Young Pope, in many ways, firmly nestles into the mold set by something like Mad Men. The direction is stunning, director(/writer/creator) Paolo Sorrentino providing his usual glut of vivid imagery alongside stark and stirring close-ups of faces on the verge of collapse. That mirrors the base definition of “cinematic television” as we’ve come to understand it: as makes sense from the director of films, this looks like something you would find in the arthouse theater. These aesthetics also often veer towards the immensely surreal, burrowing into the broken psychology of a church drowning in narcissism.
Of course, shows like Mad Men reminds us of film for reasons beyond the (vital, to be sure) shot composition. The Young Pope matches with a dense plot that applies the political intrigue of your House of Cards or Game of Thrones to the religious exploration of…well there are few other series that have dealt with Catholicism in quite this way. As the knowingly absurd title admits, this is a satirical take but it’s also mortally dark. After viewing the first few episodes, when I returned days later, it hit me how worried I was to spill myself back into this particular world. This is a deeply funny show (“snack time” proves unquestionably this show is going, at times, for humor), but it also stares into the depths of how religion can be used as yet another tool for power grabbing and emotional walls.
Jude Law brings all of that out in his performance as the pope formerly known as Lenny, especially in a guttural speech that opens the third episode (here’s where we get one of those close-ups, and it’s almost painful to watch). You’re never quite aware of where his true alliances sit, beyond a general desire to fuck with every aspect of the status quo. Though even that latter notion is only true of his actions (for example, he refuses to be photographed). In many ways, he’s conservative about the guilt inherent in sin and the refusal of doubters. A homily that closes the second episode is atrocious and beguiling, fascinatingly set against an image he props up on his lectern. He’s a man of contradictions, newly leading a religion that is no stranger to the hypocrisy between thought and action.
All of this – the stunning imagery, the pitch black comedy, the electric and captivating leading man – fits squarely into the older (well, a decade or two ago) ideology of important television. And The Young Pope wholly proves that this formula has life left inside, despite the brief period where we were left to the scraps of Ray Donovan. But another recent show is even more of a throwback, and one that proves how wide-ranging the medium is still capable of being.
One Day at a Time changes plenty about its source material, a Norman Lear sitcom that lasted from the 70’s to the 80’s. This time, the family is Cuban, the matriarch is a veteran and her reasons for her being a single mother are profoundly unsettling. But this series brings along Lear’s affinity for delving into social issues, which all three of the aforementioned shifts do with aplomb. And, in what will be the greatest deterrent to many, this is still a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh-track and limited sets. That could lead to baggage, but for being a revival series in an old-school genre, One Day is deft and largely free of nostalgic ticks. So we should ultimately be thankful that it sits alongside Fuller House on the Netflix home page: this is the antidote to that nauseating sleeping pill of a show.
Those looking closely already knew the multi-cam still had juice left (see The Carmichael Show), but One Day would be a standout even without the low bar comparisons to Fuller House and most of what CBS has on the air. Justina Machado stars as Penelope, the aforementioned vet, a mother to two and nurse who left her husband, Victor, for reasons the show slowly lets loose (and powerfully so). When Victor departed, Penelope invited in her mother Lydia, played by the inestimable Rita Moreno. Make no mistake; there is a long list of great reasons to watch this show, from its inclusive worldview to its thoughtful and clever writing. But Moreno alone takes up the top five spots on that list, easily. She is a whirlwind, a comic genius who effortlessly blends in deadpan with occasional hysterics. The best move One Day made was giving Lydia a bedroom behind a curtain in the middle of the set. This means that each of Moreno’s entrances and departures are as hysterical and overdramatic as possible, with the actress whipping about the curtain. It is a perfect comedic device.
That is, it’s funny until it stops being such a riot, like much of the show. The “Very Special Episode” of sitcoms has largely fallen out of favor (though we still occasionally get a masterpiece of the form, like Black-ish’s “Hope”). Yet in the spirit of Lear, One Day is full of lengthy conversations on race, sexuality and politics. What makes all of this work is both tone and character. The former comes from a brilliant handling of segues from set-pieces to serious confrontations, somehow knowing exactly when to let a joke slide in for the “laughing through the tears” moment (the best of these involves onions, and that’s all I’ll say on that). The other reason that none of these lessons feel forced is that they’re not really lessons at all. Instead, each disagreement is firmly rooted in character, and from that even the most political issues feel fully human. Every fight has a story behind it, and you can see egos being bruised in real time. This is one of the best shows about arguing since Gilmore Girls: both series understand that integral balance between authentic pain and pettiness that informs most familial clashes.
Any argument based around the foundational principles of an artistic medium is bound to be lacking. There’s too much out there for any clear barometer of what constitutes valid achievements to be applied. And, largely, the conversation around TV has been accepting of this. An outré experiment like Atlanta can exist alongside the more familiar The Americans on year-end lists. That gulf grows even wider when you put something like The Young Pope on the board next to One Day at a Time. The only element these shows have in common is falling under the umbrella of “television”. They show how elastic the medium is, and how greatness doesn’t always come in a set form or a preordained formula.