The Traumatized and Traumatizing (Sub)Version of Power in Sorrentino's The Young Pope.

Citation metadata

Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,536 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :


Paolo Sorrentino's sudden shift from cinema to television did not happen without warning. In a key scene in his 2015 feature film Youth, the character played by the two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda says that television is the future and cinema is the past. Clearly, Sorrentino was not trying to sabotage his own film; instead, he was preparing the audience for his forthcoming foray into television. In fact, after directing Youth, he began working on his first television series for Sky Atlantic, HBO and Canal Plus. The series, entitled The Young Pope (2016), centers on the first fictional American Pope, a highly dysfunctional and traumatized religious leader. This article examines the ways in which this Pope uses his power to make innocent people suffer for his own childhood victimization. The series features international stars such as Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, and James Cromwell. When the first two episodes premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, The Young Pope received myriad enthusiastic reviews from major European and American newspapers. Some film critics referred to it as the "latest multinational piece of wow ... just ... wow" (Ferguson), others described it as a potential hit "combining the Italian director's sardonic, Fellini-inspired gift for the bizarre with the world's ever-growing hunger to peep behind the screens at St. Peter's" (Young).

Despite low expectations for its commercial success, the series has already attracted an estimated average of almost 5 million viewers per episode across the network's "various linear and digital platforms" (Adalian). Moreover, the numerous internet memes created before it even aired caused a major audience response, supplemented by many positive critical reviews (Fernandez). In essence, The Young Pope typifies a new brand of quality TV that can be related to the idea of complex narrative. (1) Quality TV programs present specific traits: "multi-level complexity, high production values, innovative cinematic techniques, and autonomous viewing habits" (Schlutz 96). The first examples of quality TV emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, perhaps principally through The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), and Breaking Bad (2008-2013), which found both popular success and critical acclaim. Quality TV has high production values and a distinct visual style. Schlutz maintains that "it challenges viewing habits and genre expectations by breaking taboos, violating television customs, and expanding narrative rules" (101). The Young Pope fits this profile because its content is sophisticated and demands close viewer attention through complex plotlines. It is also aesthetically ambitious and attractive to certain target groups; its intelligent and visual characteristics make it "both art and merchandise" (Bignell 160). The Young Pope's narrative complexity is at the core of the quality TV model (Mittell 2015). The show's ambiguous story arcs contain several blank spaces, apparent contradictions, undisclosed motives, and incomprehensible actions (Schlutz 102). Thus, viewers diligently fill in the blanks in order to construct meaning, even leveraging the streaming functionality to backtrack and reconsider actions and dialogue. By constructing meaning, viewers reframe authorship and create unique, even personal experiences with the show's narrative. The...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503294