(CNN)As quirky and eccentric as its title character, "The Young Pope" is an odd duck, starring Jude Law as the first American pontiff. If the goal is to join the ranks of prestige HBO dramas, this 10-part show hasn't got a prayer.
HBO's 'The Young Pope' hasn't got a prayer
The limited series opens with a long, pretentious sequence and doesn't get appreciably better -- or less opaque -- from there. Trifling with religion is always treacherous territory, and some of the faithful might be offended. But the truth is the series (HBO will air new episodes each Sunday and Monday) isn't compelling enough to warrant much of a fuss.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino wrote and directed the project, which begins with Law's Lenny Belardo, now Pope Pius XIII, having just recently been installed. While some Cardinals think he might be useful as a "telegenic puppet," the stodgier precincts of the Vatican hierarchy fear -- rightly, as it turns out -- that this American pope is too erratic and idiosyncratic to control.
Pius certainly seems determined to shake things up, much to the chagrin of his right-hand man and the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Voiello
(Silvio Orlando), who suspiciously and understandably doesn't know what to make of him. The Pope further alarms those around him by enlisting the counsel and help of a nun, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who essentially raised him.
The Pope's inscrutable style is central to the show's off-kilter tone. He smokes in his office, orders a high-ranking official to fetch him coffee, makes imperious proclamations ("I put no stock in consensus") and ignores long-established protocols.
Yet this unpredictability (think of him as the first Trump-ian pope) doesn't provide much insight to gain a bead on or care about the character. And the strange behavior merely invites questions regarding how on Earth he got elected, passing over an elder Cardinal (James Cromwell) and mentor who is clearly resentful.
Law brings an element of star power to the role, but he's largely handcuffed by shortcomings in the writing. Nor is the ostensible glimpse into the Vatican's intramural politics particularly interesting given how cartoonish the key player appears.
Shot in Italy, South Africa and the U.S., the internationally co-produced series is handsomely mounted, as befits an HBO drama. But those gilded trappings don't make the exercise any less hollow -- or what the network saw in it less puzzling. (Like CNN, HBO is a unit of Time Warner.)
"There's a new pope now," Pius announces at one point, sounding a bit like the warning that there's a new sheriff in town.
"The Young Pope" is new, but hardly improved. And to use a very American expression, the series too often feels as if it's all hat, and no cattle.
"The Young Pope" premieres January 15 at 9 p.m. on HBO.