The Young Pope, One Day at a Time, religion, sexuality, and Trump.

How Two (Very) Different TV Shows Are Forcing an Important Conversation on Faith and Sexuality

How Two (Very) Different TV Shows Are Forcing an Important Conversation on Faith and Sexuality

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Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 25 2017 2:11 PM

The Young Pope and One Day at a Time Are Forcing an Important Conversation on Faith and Sexuality

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Thanks, Peak TV.

Netflix, HBO

Netflix’s One Day at a Time and HBO’s The Young Pope are vastly different in execution. The former, an old-fashioned family sitcom based on Norman Lear’s classic, tackles issues of the day in a comfortably familiar form; the latter is a demanding example of auteur-driven television, singularly directed and aesthetically obsessive. But both are products of their era, two of 2017’s buzziest shows thriving under the big tent of Peak TV. Considering the declining popularity of One Day’s multicamera format and The Young Pope’s defiant lack of commercial appeal, it’s difficult to imagine either series succeeding—let alone capturing the zeitgeist as they have—even five years ago.

Despite their drastic contrast in styles, One Day at a Time and The Young Pope cross over significantly in their approach to one particular subject: the relationship between sexuality and the Catholic Church. As we reel from an election season marked by ugly resistance to cultural shifts—and head into life under a new administration hinting at dangerous rollbacks—these two series are providing responses that, taken together, deftly meet our present moment of uncertainty.

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The Young Pope has its problems—it’s never a great sign when critics can’t agree on whether something is intentionally ridiculous or not—but creator Paolo Sorrentino still manages to supply a fairly prescient narrative on power, faith, and identity politics. As the series begins, American Lenny Balardo (Jude Law) is elected Pope Pius XIII, achieving majority support by finding favor among the conservative wing of the College of Cardinals while also, due to his relatively young age, assuaging progressives’ fear that the next Pope could revitalize some of the church’s more antiquated ideals. But it quickly becomes clear to Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) and other liberal-minded clergy that Belardo’s radicalism doesn’t swing in their direction. They particularly come to realize that he is vehemently anti-gay.

Pius XIII’s disdain for LGBTQ people initially emerges in bizarre, off-the-cuff ways. Absent of context, he asks several of his subordinates if they are “homosexual,” and after one Cardinal answers affirmatively, Pius XIII demands he be replaced and completely removed from the Vatican. The obsession worsens a few episodes later, when he orders Voiello to lead a witch hunt akin to the Lavender Scare. It’s easy to imagine the show kicking off at the end of the Francis era, in which the church’s rhetoric on LGBTQ people has softened and tolerance has increased, but official policy has remained unchanged.

The Young Pope depicts a bracing combination of authority and extremism that hits close to home, and through its norms-shattering protagonist, the show closely mirrors the regressive political movements that have taken root in Western democracies around the world. Pius XIII exploits a rather famiiar political situation: The cultural shifts that seem permanent (or at least steady) are abruptly rendered vulnerable, as a leader with very different ideas assumes control with the ability to change things dramatically and instantaneously. There are no structures in place to prevent it. He’s out of touch, failing to reach hearts and minds, putting the church’s very existence in jeopardy—but he has power, so who cares? His ascension exposes the fragility of progress.

Although top elected officials continue to question the legitimacy of same-sex relations, an increasing majority of Americans have embraced them. The Young Pope imagines an all-too-plausible reversal of progress—an aggressive backlash on a grand stage. Netflix’s One Day at a Time explores similar tensions but through the lens of everyday home life.

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One Day at a Time centers on Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a first-generation Cuban American single parent and war veteran. She lives with her two children—daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), son Alex (Marcel Ruiz)—and her mother Lydia (Rita Moreno), a larger-than-life presence and devout Catholic. Much of the comedic tension in the series comes from the cultural differences that arise from the three generations living under one roof. (The first season’s main storyline concerns Elena’s reluctance at having a quinceañera, which she deems a product of the patriarchy.) Accordingly, One Day at a Time is attuned to both newer and relatively traditional ways of thinking and allows various points of view to have their say. No one’s left out of the joke—or the emotions underlying it.

There’s no better example than when Elena, after a few episodes of building to a realization, comes out as gay. Her younger brother is completely supportive. Her mother is too, even as she hides more complicated reactions in the moment. But her grandmother is initially apoplectic. In an ingenious piece of writing, Lydia, who’s so admiring of the pope that she keeps a picture of him stuck to the refrigerator, works through the Catholic Church’s recent evolution on sexuality and talks herself out of her own disapproval in a matter of seconds, in a short monologue that keenly identifies the shift in the church’s attitude and implicitly rebukes its outdated doctrine.

You have to understand: I am a religious woman. And I’m sorry—I’m sorry, but I have a problem with Elena being gay. It goes against God! Although, God did make us in his image. And God doesn’t make mistakes—clearly. And when it comes to the gays, the pope did say, “Who am I to judge?” And the pope represents God. So, what, am I going to go against the pope and God? Who the hell do I think I am? OK! OK, I’m good.

The series treads more nuanced territory as well, via Penelope. While she is immediately supportive of her daughter and publicly presents an enlightened perspective (relative to Lydia, at least), Penelope is nonetheless fazed by the revelation. “It’s not the way I pictured it,” she says at one point. “I always imagined we’d bond over boys together.” Her arc of acceptance moves away from Lydia’s and even The Young Pope’s—both of which reckon primarily with church policy—and into the grayer, more intimate area of culture: family culture, religious culture, Catholic culture. It’s representative of how difficult it can be for some to catch up to change. One Day acknowledges that it’s OK to still struggle with this—indeed, many do—before suggesting a positive way of overcoming it. Rather than allow it to take on angry, resentful forms, Penelope strives to work through her discomfort. And she does.

For all the bleakness of one and all the optimism of the other, The Young Pope and One Day at a Time do exist in the same world: the world of Obergefell v. Hodges, of Pope Francis’ restrained calls for tolerance and understanding, of the “religiously” justified anti-LGBTQ laws sweeping through the American South and beyond. The Young Pope, it’s worth noting, is a cautionary tale, with the feeling of a political nightmare veering toward becoming reality, while One Day at a Time keeps its focus on the day-to-day and draws hopeful conclusions about how change can happen on the ground. Both series advance the conversation by asking us to take a step back and meditate on the implications of progress. But it’s still unclear which vision will best reflect the coming years, which is perhaps the greatest testament to their combined power and urgency.