Wednesday 25 April 2018

Television: Unpredictable young pope who's a Law unto himself

Another winner: Jude Law as Pius XIII in The Young Pope
Another winner: Jude Law as Pius XIII in The Young Pope

John Boland

In the opening scene of The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic), the new pontiff is standing naked in front of a mirror as he prepares to address the devout hordes in St Peter's Square. Then, fully garbed in papal white, he appears on the balcony and tells them of the virtues of masturbation, contraception, abortion and gay marriage. Three cardinals standing behind him faint on the spot.

It's only a dream, of course, but then anyone who's seen the movies of creator-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) will be familiar with his sumptuously visual surreal scenarios, though his art-house tendencies are somewhat reined in here by the need for a coherent storyline that will sustain a 10-part television series.

I've only seen the first two episodes but so far, and without sacrificing his trademark cinematic flourishes, he's succeeded brilliantly, aided by his own spikily amusing screenplay and by a commanding central performance from Jude Law, whose startling good looks have always caused him to be underrated as an actor.

Here he plays Pius XIII, elevated from his American orphan origins to the papacy and dismissed by conniving cardinals as a "telegenic puppet" who can be manipulated. He's anything but, icily telling an over-familiar old nun that "friendly arrangements are dangerous" and warning his treacherous clerical underlings that "I'm intransigent, irritable, vindictive, and I have a prodigious memory".

Law clearly revels in the role, playing up the coldly autocratic side of the character (there's a terrific scene in which he witheringly deals with the Vatican's pushy marketing woman), while also suggesting the ambiguities that make him so unpredictable both to his inner circle and to the viewer.

It's all tremendous fun and with arresting turns from Diane Keaton as the now elderly nun who raised him, Silvio Orlando as the corrupt Cardinal Voiello and a host of subsidiary players, it looks set to be another winner for HBO and Sky Atlantic. Indeed, I found it much more satisfying than HBO's other current blockbuster, the dystopian Westworld, the opening episodes of which I thought as confusing as they were sinister.

Charlie Brooker, of course, has long been a connoisseur of dystopia and in the two Channel 4 seasons of Black Mirror he offered creepy visions of a robotic world dominated by malign technologies. And now, on Netflix, he's back with six new episodes of Black Mirror to unsettle your viewing week.

The critical response has been mostly rapturous, with reviewers banging on about the current series as if it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, which it really isn't. Indeed, while there's no denying the imaginative leaps and the teasing notions dreamt up by Brooker and his co-writers, the five episodes I've so far watched have been uneven both in quality and in logic.

And it's hard not to wonder if storylines that are based on new technologies will soon seem very dated in an era when these technologies are developing at such a rate that a previous decade's exciting new invention suddenly seems so antiquated as to be positively quaint. Who now buys iPods, DVDs or non-smartphones?

That said, the series has some brilliant episodes and if you so far haven't dipped into it, try the opening, Nosedive, with Bryce Dallas Howard seeking to survive in a society where everyone is officially rated for their likeability and ostracised if their rating falls below a certain level. Facebook, how are you. Or watch the haunting San Junipero, in which dying elderly people can live in their idealised youth forever with the person they love.

Idealism, though, didn't feature in Rural Addiction (RTÉ2), where the most that could be hoped for by the chosen interviewees was an escape from the drug addictions that had blighted their lives. The individual stories were interesting, especially that of middle-aged Mick, who had been married with three children in England but who had lost his business after returning alone to Mullingar and now slept under a bridge near the town. But, beyond the reflections and observations offered piecemeal by the interviewees, no context, whether social or personal, was provided by Tuesday night's opening hour, and no real sense, either, of how or why these unfortunates had become addicted - or, indeed, of the extent to which the towns and villages of rural Ireland are now blighted by drug dependence. Indeed, all the viewer was invited to feel was the awfulness of it all.

Perhaps the second instalment, screened the following night, provided that basic information, but the opening hour had been so remiss about offering any perspective or shaping narrative that I didn't feel compelled to learn further.

So far, Pat Kenny Tonight (UTV Ireland) has essentially been the same presenter's The Front Line, which RTÉ1 had inexplicably axed, only to replace it with Claire Byrne Live, an identikit show with a different presenter. Suffice to say that Kenny is still as commanding and fluent in the UTV variant.

And after more than a decade, David McWilliams is back with Agenda (TV3), the Sunday lunchtime current affairs programme that had kickstarted his TV career. It remains just as lively, this week featuring a report from Harlem's 125th Street in which McWilliams had a spirited exchange with local black pundits about a Hillary Clinton who "doesn't care" and a Donald Trump who was "the enemy".

In Living with Lucy (TV3) Lucy Kennedy was staying with Jedward and declared that "the longer I spend with them, the more I love them". I'll say nothing.

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