The Young Pope has become the internet’s latest TV obsession, and in large part, it’s thanks to the memes it inspired before ever premiering in the United States.
Between stills of Jude Law as the young Pope Pius XIII and rearranged song lyrics to spoof the title or theme of the show, The Young Pope quickly found an audience that otherwise may not have paid attention to a series about Catholicism on HBO. At the Television Critics Association conference last week, Law said that until now he didn’t know what a meme was. After being shown just how popular the meme had become, however, Law said that he hoped it was a sign of good things to come for the show.
“I hope [the memes] will prompt interest and intrigue,” Law said, as reported by Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t know if meme trends are reflective of young people’s interest but if so I hope [young viewers see the show].”
The Young Pope brought in just under a million live viewers for its premiere. That may sound bad for a show of this magnitude — that got as much free publicity as a series could hope for — but considering there were two NFL playoff games on the day it premiered, the numbers aren’t abysmal. But while some tuned in for the series premiere, the question is whether they’ll return.
Even for those who turned to The Young Pope because of the meme going around on Reddit, Tumblr and Twitter, the actual show proved to be a little weirder than what they were anticipating.
All jokes aside, The Young Pope is a really weird show— dan faughnder (@sleddingxtigers) January 17, 2017
Two episodes in to The Young Pope and I have no idea what's going on (and not in a fun way)— Pam (@cavecibum) January 18, 2017
Tried to watch the young pope and 10mins in i cant watch this weird shit— Rebel Raw (@RebelRaw) January 17, 2017
Hmm. Seems more like the weird pope than the young pope.— jcurries (@jcurries) January 17, 2017
To HBO’s credit, the trailer it released for The Young Pope specifically calls out the fact that it’s a weird show. Although the tone the trailer paints for the overall season doesn’t reflect the entire series, the network never claimed it was going to be a run-of-the-mill drama or an exercise in religious programming. Instead, both HBO and creator Paolo Sorrentino said multiple times the series wasn’t a traditional program.
“It seems crazy, but in reality it’s not,” Sorrentino told Vulture. “But there are some things that are funny or that want to be funny. One can face many things by laughing. You don’t have to be very serious or grave all the time.”
David Sackllah at Consequence of Sound wrote, “What made [the meme] effective is that by making fun of a show that the majority of Americans hadn’t seen yet (a joint production with Sky Atlantic and Canal +, it aired in Italy this past fall), they were able to make fun of a show they didn’t realize was in on the joke.”
Based on the images floating around of Law, which can be seen below, The Young Pope looked like it was going to be another prestigious HBO drama. Instead, the show that many stumbled onto thanks to a hashtag and hilariously captioned photo was, in many ways, an extension of the meme that was floating around.
"of course you don't like my hat. not everyone 'gets' what vetements is doing. but i do. i'm very young." pic.twitter.com/i0pdtYVzbF— Pope (A Young One) (@soalexgoes) January 4, 2017
"if i see anyone talking shit about mariah on my timeline i will fucking block you. i am young, i'm a pope, and i am serious right now." pic.twitter.com/Xj35i3P3io— Alex Alvarez (@soalexgoes) January 4, 2017
I am so excited for this show pic.twitter.com/cHd4p2lfNj— Pixelated Boat (@pixelatedboat) January 5, 2017
Despite some reaction from people who think The Young Pope is a strange and incomprehensible beast, many more have come to adore the weird aspects of the show. In his review of the show, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman said:
You know from the first frame of HBO's The Young Pope (as a baby crawls over piles of other babies until the camera tilts down to find star Jude Law, dressed in his papal gown, crawl out from the bottom of the pyramid of babies) that things are going to be weird, that writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is in full control of his vision and that that vision is one American audiences haven't seen too often.
As someone who’s seen it in full, The Young Pope definitely doesn’t get any less weird, but for those willing to stick around past the initial comedy that came with the meme, the journey gets far more interesting as the series progresses.
The Young Pope airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The show has already been renewed for a second season by European network, Sky.