PopeTown (Review)

The cover of the DVD release of the 10 episode "Popetown" series.

The cover of the DVD release of the 10 episode “Popetown” series.

A look at the internationally controversial program you probably have never heard of.

If there is anything the religious right might have a point about, it is that organized religion, here meaning various forms of Christianity, has become one of a select few “acceptable targets” of cultural mockery. I personally have no problem with this phenomenon, but many others would strongly disagree. Enter the aborted British series Popetown. Commissioned in 2002 by BBC Three, the edgier, youth oriented offering of the sprawling British public broadcaster, the show, an animated mockery of the Catholic Church, incited condemnations from church officials—and rank and file Catholics—months before it was even planned to air. In late 2004, the channel decided that the 10 episodes were not worth the trouble and cancelled the program before it even aired. The show did air in other countries to similar controversy—two years later, MTV in Germany (the birthplace of the current pope) aired the full run after a 1 episode trial,  and an airing in Lithuania prompted a fine from the television regulator. Even the conservative Parents Television Council in the United States caught wind of the controversy and issued a predictable condemnation.

But was the show any good? I decided to watch the first three episodes to see for myself. The answer, in short, is “so-so”. Unnoticed in the controversy was that the satirical Vatican City—“Popetown”—was fictional even within the show’s universe; the city and the characters that inhabit it are shown at the start and end of each episode to simply be doodlings in the notebook of a bored Catholic school student. To me this seems like a bit of a cop-out on the part of the writers, an attempt to further disclaim to viewers that the program shouldn’t be taken seriously.

The program centers around Father Nicholas, a levelheaded, generally well-intentioned church official tasked with handling the pope, portrayed as an impish man-child with the intelligence and maturity of a particularly unintelligent and immature toddler. Other characters include Father Nicolas’s assistant/co-worker, Sister Marie, a similarly kindhearted but dimwitted nun, and a trio of cardinals who spend their spare time lounging in a luxuriously appointed pool hidden behind their offices, where they plot various schemes to get to first place on a list of the world’s wealthiest people. A ghoulish-looking priest with a penchant for “exotic animals” rounds out the cast.

The plotlines are just as irreverent as the premise and characters, but they are not truly…imaginative. Despite their relatively small amount of screen time, the conniving cardinals actually drive the plots of all three of the episodes I viewed, from exploiting a papal mass with disabled orphans for merchandise sales, to signing a church business deal with the dictator of a just-established republic.

The lack of imagination evident in the show’s writing brings to mind a major requirement for provocative humor, whether it is the ethnic joke, or in this case, the irreverent TV show; it has to have some sort of point. Offensiveness for its own sake can only take a creative effort so far before it overstays its welcome. The problem with Popetown is that it wastes its premise. While it avoids extreme predictability (there are, mercifully, almost no references to pedophile priests, for example), that still leaves a program with moderately clever but not particularly outstanding humor or commentary. The program as it is would have worked better had it traded in the papal satire for a royal one; of course it would have gotten less attention as making fun of the British royals is far less controversial, but it also would have been a better show. As it is, Popetown takes a provocative premise and produces a pedestrian program. Competent, but not much more.

Popetown: 2.75 out of 5 stars. Watch for the controversy, and that’s close to the end of it. At best (here meaning you don’t find the setup personally and irrevocably offensive) the show provides a an episode and a half’s worth of fresh comedy. Incidentally, the program also overuses some mediocre 3D graphical sequences for their scene transitions. The entire series is available on YouTube in multiple parts

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