damn fine tv: how we all fell in love with watching the weird

From 'Stranger Things' to 'The OA,' from the Young Pope to the return of the 'Twin Peaks,' as the world’s got weirder, so have the series we fall in love with.

by Philippa Snow
24 January 2017, 3:35pm

Do we need the surreal in order to deal with a real that proves to be increasingly insane? Ordinarily, one might ask: is the Pope Catholic? In Director Paolo Sorrentino's meme-hyped series The Young Pope, however, the answer to this is unclear. He may be an atheist. Here are some new lines to answer in the affirmative, instead: does the Pope drink Cherry Coke Zero? Does the Pope smoke copious cigarettes? Does the Pope — and I'm guessing that I'm not spoiling this for you, assuming you go on the internet and you have eyes — have a pet kangaroo? The Young Pope had me at its memes, and had me harder from its earliest scenes, which show Jude Law in his papal gown being birthed from a towering pyramid of human babies. For that matter — it had me at "Jude Law plays the Pope." What idea could be more surreal than this; a gigolo from a Kubrick movie running the Vatican? What could be more surreal than Jude Law with a full head of hair again under his zucchetto?

Yes, The Young Pope is bizarre and uncanny. It's hard to follow, and even harder to swallow. Diane Keaton, who is a nun, plays an affecting scene while wearing a T-shirt that reads: I'M A VIRGIN (BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT) a la Britney Spears, and appears at one point to forget her lines. Lenny — did I not mention this part already? The Pope's name is motherfucking Lenny — bewitches his pet kangaroo when he's coaxing it out of its cage. A Cardinal calls him "Saint Francis of a-Sydney." There is a speech about the genius of Daft Punk. There is a lot of gratuitous papal ass. The end of the very first episode's opening credits is — well, it looks like this. I haven't yet finished the series; so further on, frankly, who knows? The Pope could attend a masked orgy. The Pope could hire a little person and force them to dress as his twin. He could, given his love of Cherry-flavored cola and other fine beverages — "my most pressing need," he spits in an early papal meeting, "is my need for a cup of American coffee" — wake from one of his high-concept dreams, and discover that he's in Twin Peaks.

Read: A look at Stranger Things and the art of 80s nostalgia on screen.

Twin Peaks is What We Talk About When We Talk About the Television of the Surreal, which makes it all the more fitting to know that it returns to our screens this year, and even more disappointing to know that it may no longer seem freaky. "Losing your grip on reality?" its 2017 scheduling now seems to ask. "Could be worse: could be David Lynch." But isn't everything Lynchian now? "The question now is," Eric Deggans asks at NPR, "how will Lynch and Frost surprise fans with a new story at a time when so much of today's high quality television already feels like a distant homage to Twin Peaks?" Good question. I just watched a trailer for something where Anne Hathaway plays "an alcoholic named Gloria who finds out that her movements are controlling a giant monster terrorizing South Korea"; last year, I began and then gave up on The OA, a series whose whimsical mysteries slowly unfurled to reveal a climactic scene in which a school-shooting was foiled by interpretive dance. Even Lynch, one imagines, might balk at the pitch for the former. The latter proved too goofy for me, and I took theater studies at school as a kid like a goddamned nerd. 

Search for "surreal" and "TV" in recent-or-very-recent Google news, and you'll find Taboo ("veering from gory violence to perplexing political maneuvering to surreal sequences exploring dark magic"), Chewing Gum ("the more surreal it becomes, the more relatable it feels"), A Series of Unfortunate Events ("the series has a darkly surreal, out-of-time quality") and — wholly unsurprisingly — Trump's first Presidential speech ("there is a difference between reality TV," the Guardian's Gary Younge quips, "and something surreal that you can watch on TV"). Every Young Pope think piece ever written seems to have dealt with the parities between The Young Pope and The Old, Orange President. Law has said that Lenny and The Donald have one crucial difference; Lenny, for his flaws, "is not a liar." It says something about our current standards that this makes him almost seem admirable. From a piece in The Atlantic, as if the Trump comparisons could be made any more comically clear: "When a kid shines a laser pointer in [Lenny's] direction, he storms off the balcony, ranting, 'I don't know if you deserve me.'" Imagine this — or "I know I'm incredibly handsome, but please, let's try to forget about that" — as a tweet. Is it any wonder that our television needs to be fucked-up to keep up?

Read: Haven't watched The OA yet? Your next big binge watch is a mind-bender of magical proportions.

I think that the show's Too Young To Live, Too Pope To Die sensibility, layering sick electro over scenes of the Vatican and having the Pope be a fan of, cheesily, Banksy, is delightful. Like Twin Peaks, it pairs a comedy as black as Agent Cooper's coffee with violence and looming tragedy. It occasionally has the beats of a sitcom, and often the threat of a horror film. A review in the New York Times, which calls the series "gorgeous and appealingly weird," promises "a lush scene of [Lenny] donning his vestments, scored to LMFAO's 'Sexy and I Know It'" — an image which made me laugh out loud, at home by myself, while writing this. The OA's different brand of escapist looniness was the wrong kind of crazy for my cynic's blood: but religious high camp, the absurdly archaic set down beside the modern for comic effect, is something I'm suckered by. Lenny is furious, but he's partly furious because, like the rest of us, he is confused and browbeaten: obfuscation in a TV series feels like the most fitting way to escape a world in which most answers, most truths, are thoroughly obfuscated or even suppressed. He says: "I'm the Pope"; "I am the Pope"; "because I am the Pope" again and again, as if he can't quite believe it himself. By "I am the Pope" number eight, you think — okay, we get it! We get it, your Holiness! But it's the lot of the charlatan, and the accidental leader, to bluster and bluster and always feel misunderstood. This remains true whether or not his manner of speaking is, as Lenny's is, "clear as spring-water." "No one loves me," he says, "which is why I'm prepared for every kind of vileness from everyone." 

Watching the evening after the women's march and the day after Trump's inauguration, I could only think — to use the meme vernacular — "same." I hate to turn this into another Pope-as-Trump think piece, but simply quoting the action makes this difficult. At the end of the second episode, he gives a doom and thunder speech — "I am closer to God than I am to you. You need to know I will never be close to you, because everyone is alone before God. I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God. All I can do is remind them of my scorn, and their wretchedness" — and then, out of nowhere, it literally starts to thunder. It pours. The timing is so uncanny that you wonder whether the storm is a message from God. The crowd is left silent, terrified, soaked. When you really think about it, you can't help but wonder whose side God is on. Does He exist? I've wondered that this week, as well.

Read: Here's what to watch now your epic Stranger Things-binge is over as you wait for season two!


Text Philippa Snow
Still from The OA

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