You probably didn’t know what The Young Pope was about before it premiered on Sunday night. Yes, you knew the most basic aspect of its premise — a pope, who is young — and maybe you skimmed an early review, but you didn’t really know its deal. Was it satire? What was the central conflict? What accent did Jude Law take on?
But you did know one thing: The title, paired with the vague promotional material, made for dank memes.
WRITER: So, there’s this Pope, right?— Patrick Monahan (@pattymo) December 7, 2016
HBO EXEC: Go on
WRITER: But get this - he’s young. And he fucks
HBO EXEC: [cigar falls out of mouth]
Take me down to the Vatican City— Alicia Kraft (@TheAliciaKraft) January 5, 2017
Where the Pope is young and the tone is gritty
And because of those memes, the show was introduced to American viewers as an internet joke, instead of an ambitious European project responding to modern events. The show may not live up to its own ambitions, but just the title led many to dismiss it without waiting to see the evidence.
This is a fate that has befallen a growing handful of badly titled television shows. Cougar Town most famously struggled with an irksome title ultimately at odds with its plot, which was not about a bunch of women dating younger men but, in fact, followed a new divorcée as she figured out life without her husband. Trophy Wife had to contend with calls of sexism from the moment it was announced, despite it being wholesome in the same vein as Modern Family. The headline to the Slate review of Trophy Wife says it all: “Terrible Name, Good Show.” Meanwhile, the show formerly known as Scrotal Recall got renamed Lovesick when Netflix took it over from England’s Channel 4.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was met with a slew of criticism before it premiered in fall 2015 due to its loaded phrase of a title, which has historically been used as a sexist way to dismiss and demean women. Feminists refused to give it the time of day. The show was written off before it had a chance to presents its case. Had potential viewers tuned in they would have been in for a pleasant surprise: Lead actress and creator Rachel Bloom actually says “that’s a sexist term” in the title song, and the series subverts the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope by humanizing an obsessive young woman.
Lee Eisenberg, executive producer of Trophy Wife, said they “always meant [the title] to be ironic.” Irony, however, is a hard sell. It is not a promise; it’s a challenge. An off-putting title means that a show starts with a barrier to overcome. Then, even if you get someone to watch, it’s an added challenge for the showrunner: Prove yourself. Overcome the title. Despite excellent reviews, Trophy Wife was canceled after one season and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is still trudging through low ratings.
[whispering to date while watching The Young Pope when The Young Pope first appears on screen] That's the young pope.— Whitney🎭Reynolds (@whitneyarner) January 3, 2017
Cougar Town dealt with both external and internal criticism for its ridiculous title. The show premiered in 2009, and by 2010 executive producer Bill Lawrence was already publicly discussing a title change. The studio’s research found, he said, “too many instances of... people saying they would never watch a show called Cougar Town... and then they screen an episode and people go, ‘Oh, I would watch this show.’”
Rather than go for a subversion play, a la Trophy Wife and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Cougar Town eventually winked at the bad title, embracing it in all its horribleness. They began adding straightforward groans to their title cards, creating a running joke and some camaraderie for the darling fans who had to tell their friends they like a show called Cougar Town. This is especially relevant in modern society when viewing is social; who would actively want people to know they’re enjoying a show called Trophy Wife?
And when a show’s title is truly unredeemable — not ironic, not meme-worthy, not worth an “aw shucks” — there is always the nuclear option. When Netflix picked up Scrotal Recall from Britain for a second season, it changed out the title. It was rebranded Lovesick by writer and creator Tom Edge. For a show about an STI diagnosis, it still got a pun in there, although fans took to the internet to grumble that it was bland. But at the least, it allowed viewers — and the cast and crew — to freely talk about it.
“Tom [Edge] told us his mother wouldn't tell her friends about the show because of the name,” a Netflix spokesperson said in an email. “But frankly we feel the new title is more accessible.”
hey now, you're a young pope— matt ◉ lubchansky (@Lubchansky) January 5, 2017
not an old pope
Simple accessibility is safe, unlike a bold and controversial title. If that had been the goal, HBO could have called its show The American Pope. Boring, but harder to spoof.
he's a young pope— Xena WorrierPrincess (@marianbull) January 5, 2017
he loves his Father
and the Vatican too
A bad title can lead potential viewers to generate a false conception of the show long before the show has a chance to present itself. As with The Young Pope, a title can generate attention. (Law said he hopes the memes “prompt interest and intrigue.”) But that virality doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive return in viewership.
I'm just a young pope, nobody loves me— sarah jeong (@sarahjeong) January 5, 2017
He's just a young pope, from a pope family
The title The Young Pope is a clear prompt for the imagination. On the one hand, it’s a fascinating question — what if we had a pope who was completely out of step with the rest of the Vatican? In some ways, we are seeing that experiment play out with the current pope — memed as the "cool pope" — who is the first Jesuit pope and the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years. Pope Francis said Catholics were “obsessed” with abortion, endorsed a Palestinian state, and tackled corruption within the church, among other moves that broke with tradition. "The Young Pope might masquerade as a high-budget soap — but it tells us some uncomfortable truths about the hypocrisy at the top of the Catholic Church,” wrote The Independent.
On the other hand, well, it’s a meme targeting television producers’ lack of thoughtfulness:
The Young Pope was met with positive reviews in Italy and the United Kingdom, where it already aired. So far the reviews in the US have been mixed, with a negative focus on the campy styling and ridiculousness of the plot — although similar grand camp was widely praised when seen in Young Pope creator and director Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty.
inserting the humorous name of a hotly anticipated new TV series into song lyrics is becoming a bit of a ... wrung trope— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) January 5, 2017
But art is not viewed in a vacuum separate from social context. Thanks to an unfortunately received title, The Young Pope now has something to prove.
Alexandra Svokos is a news writer in New York and on Twitter.