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”
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.
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.