Anyone curious about how we ended up with President Donald Trump needed only to tune in for three hours of television last Sunday evening. There, beautifully stylized, meticulously written, and impeccably acted was our predicament, the reason we’re now stranded with a disdainful vulgarian about to occupy the highest office in the land. Everything you needed to know about Trump you could’ve learned from Sherlock Holmes and Pope Lenny.
The latter, portrayed by Jude Law with all the subtle beauty of an oil spill, is the protagonist of The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO miniseries. His abs as hard as his convictions, the American cardinal, the show’s pilot informs us, was elected by a careless cabal of insiders who were certain that putting forward an inexperienced, volatile, but massively popular media darling would mean ending up with a pontiff they could control. Once he ascends, Lenny renames himself Pius XIII, but he might as well have gone with Donald II: Brash, vindictive, and self-obsessed, he bullies his rivals, asserts his singular greatness, and demands that the church buy back some gilded tchotchkes that his predecessors, in a good-faith effort to economize, had sold off. He also espouses the same sort of conservative ideas you’re more likely to read on Breitbart than in papal encyclicals, and with his dead eyes and slicked-back hair is one dead tiger or blonde wife removed from Eric or Don Jr.
In short, Pope Lenny’s not a likable guy. But that’s not the show’s main problem; plenty of memorable series have thrived with protagonists who were challenged in the congeniality department. Rather, the show, at least judging by the first episode of 10, falters because it chooses to shine a light on a silly spectacle of nastiness rather than look for truth and beauty in deeper, darker, and quieter corners. Before settling on Lenny, a narcissistic ninny who, in his extravagant robes, looks like a young man who had raided Grandma’s closet, Sorrentino was approached to write and direct a show about Padre Pio, the controversial southern Italian friar who was canonized by John Paul II. Afflicted with the stigmata, he was haunted by some popes and used by others. To many in Italy and around the world, he was a holy man. To at least one physician who examined him, he was “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity.” And he would’ve made for a fine and fascinating show, most likely, though not one, probably, that could contain intolerably stunning dream sequences involving a pyramid of babies or two cardinals in full regalia engaged in a slapping contest.
If The Young Pope has too little heart, Sherlock offers a little too much. The premise of the fourth—and, by most reports, final—season of the show, which concluded on Sunday night, was jarring: There are other Holmes siblings, and they are the smart ones. Sherlock, he of the deerstalker and the mind palace, is triumphant simply because he can empathize, a fact that is driven home again and again in sepia-toned flashbacks of the celebrated deducer at 6, looking adorable in knee-length shorts and curls.
It’s hard to discuss this premise any further without spoiling the twists and turns of a season rich with them, but if the previous paragraph strikes you as strange, well, it’s because it is: We love Sherlock, have always loved him, because he’s the embodiment of pure reason and a solver of really difficult mysteries, not because he’s super good at resolving family conflicts and diligent about working out his repressed childhood memories.
Such emotional overindulgence not only robs one of popular culture’s most astute thinkers of his wits, but also forces us all into an infantile state in which all focus is always on the self and its constant, nagging needs. Like Pope Lenny, whose tastes—he only drinks Cherry Coke Zero—and his attachment to Sister Mary, the nun who raised him from boyhood, both suggest that he’d never quite gotten around to the task of growing up, Sherlock, too, is another child replaying his earliest traumas on a much more lavish stage.
What would a young and conservative pope do if placed on the throne? How would the world’s greatest detective use his powers to combat anything from Russian hackers to Islamist terrorists? These are fascinating questions, but we’ll never know the answers. Instead of men, the gods of prime time have given us two simpering boys, and instead of great and good dramas that explore all that is human and terrifying and hopeful about our struggling species, we’ve just more gilt and noise.
Is it any wonder, then, that we elected a president who is swayed primarily by the gravitational pull of raucous cable news? And is it really surprising that when our turn came to fulfill our supreme civic duty so many of us ended up voting for the person who’s been chewing the scenery on NBC for 14 seasons? Responsibility, empathy, decency—none of these comes naturally. They are learned, slowly and painstakingly, at home and in school but also by means of a cultural osmosis of sorts, by belonging to a community that sets up standards and insists that we abide or else. But when our entertainment so often implies that those who’ve matured are bores and those who still cry out for attention are worthy of it, when we can think of no other approach to fiction than one that showcases self-centered twits, when the outraged and the outrageous are all you see and hear, the thrust toward maturity stops. Like the young pope and the weepy sleuth, we’re all children now, and the president we elected, like the TV shows we spend so much time parsing, are the ones we deserve.
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