While Sorrentino and HBO have a right to make any series they want, the church and Catholics also have the right to condemn it. They also don’t have to watch, which is something many will ultimately opt to do. That Sorrentino is a great director is not in question. What is, regarding this series, is taste. Sorrentino appears to be battling his own inner demons — he all but said that in interviews ahead of the series’ premiere — when it comes to his faith.
“My interest was in breaking the taboos in the portrayal of priests and nuns, in the representation of the clergy in general, because they are always painted as saints or scoundrels,” Sorrentino said in a recent interview. “I wanted to paint them for that they are — human beings, strange human beings who have to relate with God, this invisible entity, as well as having a normal life.”
That the secular press largely gave the series rave reviews (while Catholic media largely ignored it) tells you a little something about the content of this series. There is nothing redeeming here: not the characters, not the institution, not anything.
Indeed, the popes depicted in this series are really nothing like the two the church has now. Yes, that the church is headed by Pope Francis (with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI seemingly lurking in the background, much to Francis’ fury), something that isn’t lost on Sorrentino. He sets up this current season as palace intrigue, but it falls mostly flat. There is no one here to ultimately root for — unless you take pleasure in liking bad guys.
Of course, the real church does have its bad guys (the likes of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick come to mind), but this series paints a broad brush. Papal history is also loaded with corruption and scandal. But this series isn’t trying to educate, it’s plain shock. If you’re into that, then enjoy. If not, do yourself a favor and watch something else.
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.