Genre: TV Pilot – Drama/Thriller
Premise: The Pope must decide what to do when a New York Archbishop ordains a woman, threatening everything the Catholic Church stands for.
About: Showtime is hoping this controversial new show (although the creator claims controversy is not the goal) will extend on the network’s breakout critical hit, Homeland. Writer and creator Paul Attanasio is best known in the TV world for creating the hit show “House M.D.” on Fox. Attanasio seems to have some high pedigree in his DNA. A Harvard Law grad, his brother is the principle owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, a professional baseball team. In addition to being a film critic at the Washington Post (in the 80s), Attanasio has been nominated for an Academy award and an Emmy. He penned feature films “Sphere,” “The Sum of All Fears (which kind of sounds like ‘Sphere’ if you say it fast),” “Quiz Show,” and “Donnie Brasco.” The Vatican is being made in partnership with Ridley Scott, who is currently the only man in Hollywood history attached to every single project in town.
Writer: Paul Attanasio
Details: 68 pages – “Revised Draft, September 18, 2012”

ChandlerKyle Chandler will play Cardinal Thomas Duffy

I don’t know much about the whole Pope thing. What I do know boils down to a really old man who often looks like he’s on the verge of death riding around in a funny looking bullet-proof glass car waving to people. In fact, most of my understanding of organized religion comes from The DaVinci Code (the book, not the movie. Come on. As if.).

But in retrospect, I wish I’d known more. I believe as a screenwriter, there are four things you owe it to yourself to study as much as possible, because they ALWAYS come up in some form or another in stories. If you DON’T know them, your story always loses some credibilty. These are: law enforcement, hospital/medicine, the legal world, and, of course, religion.

I mean how often are you going to have a big group of characters and not even one is religious? If you’re completely ignorant on the topic (like myself) your character either looks generic (since you don’t know the details of what makes the man tic) or you get scared off and take the character out of the religious realm, losing the religious dynamic entirely from your story.

And religion’s resulted in some pretty amazing stories. I mean how cool is it that Vatican City is its own country, with its own set of laws and rules (according to Dan Brown)? That right there is enough to base a story on. And my guess, when I saw this show, is that that’s what it would be about, that intricate quirky world. If indeed that’s the case, I’m in.

Although there are a billion characters in “The Vatican,” the show focuses on a handful. The first is cooly named Pope Sixtus, a fussy 70-something who’s trying to be open-minded about the Church’s future. Then there’s Cardinal Marco Malebra, the Secretary of State here in Vatican City and the No. 2 man in power. He’s a hardliner who wants the Pope to rule with more of an iron fist. Then across the pond is Cardinal Duffy, a young up-and-coming New York Archbishop who’s just gone against everything the church stands for and ordained a woman.

Even for church ignorants like myself, Attanasio keeps this plot surprisingly easy to follow. Basically, Duffy thinks that in the age of Twitter, it’s time for a change. People are losing interest in the church, and he knows that this kind of thing is going to get folks talking again, make people realize that the church CAN change and IS willing to evolve. Important to America since giant contemporary issues are bumping up against the church more and more every day, starting with gay marriage.

Back in Vatican City, Cardinal Malebra is not down with this at all. He thinks the Pope should take a stand and publicly oppose the move, then remove Duffy from the Church. But the Pope isn’t so sure. While he believes that Duffy is probably wrong, he wants to see how the public reacts to it. Eventually, however, the news gets so big, that Malebra wins out. The Pope is forced to fly Duffy into Rome to give him a talking-to.

Or so that’s what Malebra thinks. In actuality, Malebra, who’s spent the last 20 years maneuvering to become Pope, is shocked when the Pope confides in him that he plans to give Duffy his (Malebra’s) job. Realizing this would destroy his career, Malebra must act fast. But what follows is something nobody could have predicted (well, nobody who’s not a screenwriter at least). It will change not only the fabric of Vatican City, but the fabric of the entire world.

Anna FrielAnna Friel will play Duffy’s wife

So here’s what I always wondered about the hardcore political folk. The people who live in Vatican City are probably the most religious people in the world, right? Yet trying to become Pope requires so much political maneuvering that many of them have to get screwed, right? So do those screwed Cardinals then get pissed off?? Or do they smile kindly and claim that it must have been “God’s will?” I always wondered where God ended and people began in those dust-ups.

As for the story here, I thought it was… angelic? Even I know ordaining women is a big deal, and I loved the pressures that created for our characters – forcing the Pope to take a stance on it. And really, that’s what I loved most here. When you’re coming up with any idea, whether it be film or television based, you’re looking for something that creates a pot-boiler – a kitchen full of people who are feeling the heat from the outside, and don’t like who they’re looking across at inside.

That’s “The Vatican” in a nutshell. The Catholic Church is always under heat for something. Whether it be child molesting priests or the hardline stance on gay marriage. So you’re always going to feel that heat. And then you have a bunch of people inside this church who all have their own motives and ideas on how things should be run. Malebra and his cronies are trying to surround the Pope from every side and squeeze him until he gives his position up.

Add a dose of irony and it gets even better. These are people who are supposed to be kind and caring and doing “God’s will.” But they’re all double-crossing and scamming and scheming – the very opposite of the oath they took when they committed to the Church. And when you add really strong writing on top of that (Attanasio knows this world well, his prose is strong, his description is strong, his writing is self-assured), it all came together rather nicely.

Then, of course, when you write a TV pilot, we have to be able to see the future episodes. This setting is so rich that they could honestly keep writing episodes until the end of time. I mean when is the Church not going to be controversial? When isn’t there going to be some big issue they have to deal with? When won’t they have to fight hypocrisy? When won’t they have to defend their place in society? And with many around the world claiming religion a dying ideal, how does the Church stay relevant? What lengths won’t they go to to do so?

The only things I’d call negatives were the over-abundance of characters. I understand it’s a necessary evil, but the only time the pilot stumbled was when I tried to remember who someone was and what they had to do with everyone else. And then the story itself could’ve had a little more pop. I mean, there’s a big pop at the end, but the pilot must spend so much energy setting up its extensive world, that the story itself wasn’t able to have as much fun as maybe it wanted to.

But this was good stuff.  No doubt about it. I’ll have to wait til it hits Itunes since I don’t have Showtime, but this one’s certifiably worth checking out.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If possible, try to have conflict coming from your characters’ OUTER world as well as their INNER world. Here, the Pope is being bombarded by his Archbishops in America (who are ordaining women), as well as having to fight off Malebra, who is gunning for his job right here in Vatican City. You can apply this to smaller stories as well.  Say you’re writing a movie about high school, like the Alexander Payne film, Election.  Matthew Broderick’s principal character is fighting the “outer” world, in Reese Witherspoon’s character trying to take over the election, as well as his “inner” world, the fallout with his wife over his affair with another woman.

  • Alex Palmer

    Wow, who’d have thought the Father Ted remake would be this glossy?

    I like political dramas, and this seems like an interesting take on the genre. Colour me excited.

    Oh, Good point on the four topics of study, Carson. Of that list, my strength is probably in religion (could we expand it to five and include politics?), and weakness would be my limited knowledge of law enforcement. The only things I know about the latter have come from watching procedurals :P.

  • A Tribe Called Guest

    Should have been called House of Card…inals?


      You win.

    • M

      Per THR, this pilot is dead. It needed re shoots and ultimately the showrunner walked. Plus the cast options expire on 12/31.

  • drifting in space

    Research is a writer’s best friend and a fun way to procrastinate.

  • jaehkim

    in any pilot, the most important thing is to get the audience to want to see the next episode. at the end of the vatican, I was so surprised and awed, I couldn’t wait for more.

    the most interesting thing for me was the supposed religious folks who were more interested in the political side of the life at the vatican because I’ve always wondered how jaded these cardinals actually become.

    when the pope offers duffy malebra’s job, duffy actually turns the job down, which was a surprise. when learning of this, one of the cardinals say:
    “Now thatis a dangerous man.
    The last thing the Church needs is
    a man of principle.”

  • jaehkim

    “Anna Friel will play Duffy’s wife”

    carson, do you mean duffy’s sister? since cardinal duffy is catholic, he can’t be married.

    • wlubake

      It’s possible that she’s his late wife, and only appears in flashbacks. He can’t be married now, but he can be a widower (Pope John Paul II was).

      • jaehkim

        I don’t remember the script having flashbacks of his wife. he does have a very promiscuous sister who lives with him. I assume it’s her.

        • wlubake

          Well, sure, if you want to cheat and actually read the script…

  • themovienerd

    I’m just excited to see Chandler on TV again. One of the most underrated actors in HW today. FNL is still one of my favorite shows of all time for 2 reasons: Phenomenal writing that made typical high school characters actually deep, rich and dramatic. And Chandler who kept it all together with brilliant use of understatement.

    Hopefully he shines in this as well. He deserves more attention.

  • Poe_Serling

    Thanks for the review, Carson. A lot of good stuff to discuss here, especially in regard to using religious material in your project.

    A short time back, I read an article highlighting the fact that many of Hollywood’s most famous directors (Ford, Hitchcock, Capra, etc.) were practicing Catholics and how their faith helped to shape not only their careers but influence some of their best-known films.

    • klmn

      Speaking of religious material, I’m still waiting to see GONE WITH THE POPE. So far it’s only been seen at a few film festivals. It should be released somehow, theatrically or on DVD.

      If you’ve never seen Duke Mitchell’s previous film, MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE, you should see that too. (Carson, you should review that one).

      Here’s the trailer.

      • Poe_Serling

        Gone with the Pope is classic grindhouse for sure!!

      • Malibo Jackk

        Still waiting for the blue ray.

  • Kosta K

    This show might as well be set in space and be about a bounty hunter who gets a bounty put on his head.

  • Graham

    This is incredibly timely – was corresponding with a friend earlier on today who has been thinking of starting to work on a TV pilot/project which focusses heavily on the Catholic Church. Although his has a somewhat different premise, this is as good a discussion as any to be had on some of the themes that might be involved – and it also gives him an idea of the kind of competition he faces…..

    On another note, I just recently watched the third and final season of ‘The Borgias’. The show somewhat ran out of steam by the end (for various reasons I suspect) but although it is set in a far more violent and dare I say it – lustier – time period, it does show there’s a good amount of dramatic mileage to be had when the folks running the Vatican are shown to be rather less saintly than they are supposed to be…..

    • A Tribe Called Guest

      All proceeding comments aside, if you can pull it off, all the power to you. I love b-t-s stories set in specific industries (Wooo, Halt & Catch Fire!) and organizations where little is publicly known.

      Just a mini rant on the word ‘timely’. On the one hand, a commercially successful project will result in a subsequently-commissioned glut of similar fare. You can play catch up with that and possibly be successful.

      On the other, you can write something unique that might result in making a name for yourself & possibly result in getting more work down the road (See: “Enter The Holy War”, probably my favourite amateur submission on this site ever). If you’re looking for a book that lauds that approach (& one I apply to my own career), I’d recommend looking up a non-fiction business book called “Blue Ocean Strategy”.

      I favour the latter, but am prepared for both. A ton of sports biz stories will be released due in part to the success of Moneyball a few years ago (heck, my first project (so it’s not good :P) is in that field). New productions, TV & film, covering Silicon Valley are being released. What came out a few years ago? The Social Network.

      I should get back to work. Read, write, perform, and always keep your packet diversified, amigos.

      • Graham

        Oh yes – I meant ‘timely’ purely in the sense of ‘here’s a TV pilot dealing with issues around Catholicism – isn’t that what you are thinking of embarking on?’. Well aware there’s a whole other discussion around whether this means people will be looking for similar material or whether this means its already time to move on and think about writing something else. And think it was also useful for him to see the ‘CV’ of the guy who is writing this one – in the sense of ‘That’s your competition’….

        My advice to him was basically – if this is your passion project that you need to write,then write it. But don’t let it be your only passion project…..

  • John Bradley

    The new Pope was just named Time’s Person of the Year, so this show seems to have some really good timing on it’s hands. The new Pope has some very liberal views and has created much controversy in conservative America. This show seems to challenge beliefs and that could work to its benefit.

    I like that in reality interest in the church is on the decline and it’s survival is on the line if they can’t revitalize interest. That could create a lot of situations of conflict for the church’s higher ups, what are they willing to do to keep the church strong?

    I could see this being a lot like House of Cards.

    • Matty

      Thank God they didn’t pick Miley Cyrus

      • John Bradley

        Haha my girlfriend and I were talking about that and she was really hoping Miley would win it. I would have lost all faith in humanity.

        • Matty

          I actually think Miley is a marketing genius. The fact that she was even being mentioned for Person of the Year is evidence enough. She knows exactly what she’s doing, she hasn’t gone insane like so many people seem to think. That said, I think a lot of stuff she does is just stupid (she really needs to work on keeping her tongue in her mouth), but it doesn’t matter – people are talking about her. And she’s certainly talented. That Wrecking Ball song is actually pretty good and the music video is both retarded and brilliant at the same time. And it has like 400 million views on Youtube. Can’t argue with the results.

          But the Pope…. I’ve never given a single shit about any Pope, but this one is a baller. After hearing about how he apparently sneaks out of the Vatican at night to hang out with homeless people, I was like, that’s it – he wins. Not to mention all the other awesome stuff he does/has done.

          • Breezy

            Ive seen interviews with Miley and dont believe she’s lost it, my personal opinion is she’s just being herself. but marketing genius? lol She came from disney being all rated g to *blaugh* in your face — im grown bitch, got in the news… meh. I dont see her any different from any of the others. You praise her for wrecking ball but I havnt seen where you talk about the vocals? wasnt *that* her contribution? I mean, besides being naked in the vid.

    • JakeBarnes12

      “The new Pope has some very liberal views and has created much controversy in conservative America.”

      Yeah, like lookin’ out for the poor so the rich don’t screw them quite so bad.

      I mean, what the fuck?

      • drifting in space

        Yeah, what the fuck is up with that?

      • Breezy

        Wasn’t that robin hood?

      • John Bradley

        Liberal views like that = common sense these days.

    • mary Grainne Uaile

      Liberal views?

      • John Bradley

        He speaks out against homophobia, capitalism, etc…

  • Malibo Jackk

    Met a pastor once while visiting a hospital.
    His job at the hospital was ministering the dead, dying, and those left behind.
    When I asked him what denomination he was, he rattled off a long list. Said he also ministered at a country church. Both appeared to be a thankless jobs. He was a somber man.
    In talking, I mentioned how odd it was that some people who claim to be most religious, behave in a manner un-religious.
    That’s nothing, he said. You should see our board meetings.

    I don’t for a minute think the Vatican is non-political.
    God, power and money corrupt.
    The Vatican has all three.

    • Guest

      Are you saying all these three things in unison can corrupt, or either of them individually?

      • Matty

        He was telling God that both power and money corrupt.

        This is why I will never let go of the Oxford comma ;-)

        • Malibo Jackk

          Text corrected.
          Funny that I have a habit of using that comma
          but somehow missed it.

        • Ansar M. Smith

          Vampire Weekend

          • Kirk Diggler

            Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?

          • Citizen M


          • Kirk Diggler

            or the reference is wasted.

      • Malibo Jackk


  • Citizen M

    The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) was a movie about Vatican politics. Beautifully photographed, but overlong and rather boring.

  • Breezy

    Religion is what confuses people, not God.
    Thats why “religion” is controversial. You either believe in God or you don’t. Youre agnostic, atheist or a believer — Its a personal thing. And a bit of ignorance will always go hand in hand with religion, it again depends on the individual and how open minded they are or can be because of their denomination.
    Study law, religion, medicine and the popo force as much as possible? for my writing? I dont get that. I understand you can have a broad enough basic knowledge to identify with some stories, or just everyday life (all knowledge is good afterall), but in movies, dont the writers just assume the audience doesnt know and explain it anyway? Thats like studying in itself. Whatever, these things havnt confused me in my writing or watching so its on my fuckit list. Ill read on any and everything that interests me.
    I know there was this amateur script with a scene where they got facts wrong about a revolver and one commenter had to post an entire diagram explaining what they had wrong.

  • themovienerd

    Since Duffy is a catholic PRIEST (or member of the cloth) he can’t be married.

  • RO

    One flag that I saw in this review is the idea that Malebra is next in line for pope. Even all the backhandedness and conspiracy surrounding it, the hierarchy of Vatican City doesn’t allow for “a next in line” approach when it comes to the pope. The pope is elected after many days and sometimes weeks of debate after the previous pope has passed. In addition, the standing pope doesn’t get to choose his successor before he dies, at least not since the church required all men of the cloth to be celibate and “pure”. Before hand it was a lot like royalty, the popes first born son would take his place. So the biggest leap of faith you’d have to take here is to believe the errors I mentioned above. And when it comes to politics and hierarchy, when you do it wrong, people think it’s real and then it gets repeated and believed, then when it doesn’t happen in reality the way it did on film, outbursts become abundant.

    It’s like the whole “internal affairs” thing. The department of Internal Affairs is not within the police department. They are a third party, their investigators are not officers, do not have badges, carry weapons or have the authority to arrest – it’s a civilian job. A majority of investigations from that department are made on behalf of the civilians that have complaints regarding officers or practices of a unit. Rarely do other cops log a complaint with that office, and if evidence is found against an officer, the investigators need permission from the court for an arrest by a separate precinct.

    Sorry for the rant, I’ve had to read a bunch of cop scripts as of late and needed to vent. Thankfully I had an appropriate segue, as I’ve been to Vatican City a few times and have done the research. So when I saw this, it snowballed with another thing irking me.

  • kevin thomas

    Anyone have a copy of the script? I’m writing a pilot and I’m trying to read as many as I can get my hands on for homework?

    Thanks in advance.

  • bruckey

    The church does not appoint women priests however there can be a female cardinal. The new Pope may actually appoint one.


    ‘Jane Got a Gun’ Writer to Make Directorial Debut With ‘Vivien Hasn’t Been Herself Latel

  • bruckey
  • Zeennorman

    Showtime just announced that show will not be picked up for series.

  • kidbaron
  • Crcbonjour

    Been an Attanasio admirer since his early days; my HS freshman teacher had same last name. Some things stick; she was special, his work always was exceptional.

    Waiting on this, for whatever reason, might be a good thing. Might be better as a feature or mini series. Give the TIME thing some….time. He’s Italian so likely a Catholic (as am I) trust me, we’re all either lost, split or REALLY OLD. The theme of the Pope doing something different is perfect, real (who knew?) and now, open to further exploration. Don’t know if ordaining women would be the way to wrankle the Vatican….I think Francis has already done that just in shunning all the “finery” and certain protocol. (Think the Queen in jeans driving a Mini to Tesco, no purse, no pearls….) House of Lords flipping their wigs….

    The Vatican is a mystery though there are great historians w/some facts and “theories” from which great plot points can be drawn. Godfather III went there…yes, I know; not the same as I & II. Their mostly old, quasi-political religious figure heads in hiding. I think some of them have been “reassigned” to put it nicely, under the new regime. Francis doesn’t see the need. Well he does, OUTSIDE Vatican walls. He sees humanity. That’s what’s cool.

    So that’s what ‘might work” I’m thinking as a catholic, married priests. It never did make sense! It’d still go up against the grain….but let’s face it; it still is, for all intents and purposes a mans world. Women priests is all but going Sci FI.

    It could get all kinds of interesting otherwise! Just about something for everyone even if they don’t care about religion per se, plus it could do some collateral cool p/r for the Church. Or not. But it’ll likely be very entertaining. Plus, those Swiss Guard costumes? Heaven for an extra. Attanasio could probably get the budget for some Rome location shooting!

    Simmer & serve? It’s different, it’s relevant and it’s loaded. Do it Mr. Attanasio!