Cyber Monday sounds a lot like Cybergun Day so why not take time today to look back at the greatest TV series you’ve never seen: NightPope. This 1997 action series only ran for 36 episodes on TNN and late at night at that but its legacy lives on today, especially as it was the only time Cybergun Films founder Harold Ragsdale worked in TV.
Ragsdale hated TV and would not consider the idea of working for it but a desperate need for a cash infusion following You Might Be A Redneck: The Movie, a film Gene Siskel called “the only hate crime ever perpetrated against white people,” forced his hand. Working with Worldvision Enterprises, Ragsdale was urged to create something in the vein of Renegade. Ragsdale had a fairly generic pitch about an outlaw biker ready to go when a megadose of dolphin stimulants inspired him to rework the entire pitch to be about “action pope.” While his collaborators were uncertain about the idea, it was just unique enough to inspire positive reactions from them and thus it was greenlit for 36 episodes and sold to TNN.
NightPope is, to be blunt, a surreal show. It centers on Slade Ironstone (Mick Reno), a biker with a penchant for fights and a gift for disguise who gets framed for murder and must go on the run. He seeks the help of his uncle, a high ranking Cardinal (also played by Reno in terrible makeup), but when the man dies, he decides to take his place. Then things get hectic when the Pope dies of food poisoning and Slade finds himself at the papal enclave where he gets elected Pope Pantineta I. Each week, Slade found himself roaming from town to town while struggling to keep up then facade of Pope.
Ragsdale initially drew excitement from his investors as a Papal storyline cried out for a shot in Eastern Europe. He wasn’t having that. Instead every episode was shot in Southern Missouri posing as Arizona with people constantly welcoming the Pope to the woody part of the state. The setting itself was excused with a line about the Pope touring America, a tour he never seemed to stop.
The setting paled next to the surreality of every episode. On the surface, the stories were generic. Slade constantly found himself ducking out at night, abandoning his makeup for a biker jacket with the word NightPope, getting into bar brawls to try to find out who set him up. He also developed a relationship with a female trucker whose path he constantly crossed, Imelda Pagar (Angela Keyes). Slade’s ally was a janitor, Sancho (Victor Mancha), who knew his secret but kept it quiet.
What was weird was everything else about the show. In the second episode, NightPope performed an exorcism in a bar, dressed in full Pope attire. In the 25th episode, NightPope punched aliens who had landed. In several episodes, he fought vampires and mummies. In every episode. he made Pope puns. If the show was intended as a standard Renegade knockoff, it became a Mexican exploitation love letter.
The show felt like nothing else on TV. Frequent use of the Vertigo effect. Musical cues straight out of Romper Room. Scenes transitioned with a shot of a dolphin driving a semi. There was constant discussion of the Vatican but in ways that bore no resemblance to the actual organization.
But what everybody really watched for were the sermons. Ragsdale only wrote a few episodes but he wrote every sermon that ended every episode. And being the shill he was, they all told parables that amounted to stories from his films, except filtered through the POV of a man who huffed liquid nitrogen. They were nonsensical, rambling, and strange but glorious.
They had to watch for the sermons because only 10 action scenes were ever shot for the first 20 episodes, all of which were reused. In the case of the mummy episode, the mummy was unraveled to reveal one of the people Slade fought earlier. The only scene where the action really popped was the alien invasion episode which set a record for bladder effects used on TV.
And oh the acting. Mick Reno was a former Razorback football player turned tire salesman when he landed the job of NightPope and he was a mess, never meeting any eyelines. When the show aired, Reno would go into Wal-Marts and demand they play a DVD of it, throwing a tantrum when they didn’t. He was matched in awfulness by Keyes who was an actual trucker and whose signature acting trick was angrily winking. Only Mancha, a gifted stage actor, brought any dignity to the show and his character’s signature move was vomiting in fear.
Midway through production it became clear the show wouldn’t get a second set of episodes. Ragsdale was allowed to give a true finale as a result. In this two part episode, Slade discovers his uncle faked his death, killed the Pope, and was responsible for framing him. Slade and his uncle got into a fight which ended with the Pope unmasked and his uncle dead. Instead of losing the job, it was decided Slade could stay on, even marrying Imelda in the final shot. A post-credits scene jumps forward twenty years to show the Catholic church is now a series of Taekwondo dojos still ruled by Pope Slade I. Then the aliens land again. The end.
Oh what could’ve been for NightPope. The concept was, ok it was awful. The production quality was, all right it was an atrocity. But the fun. Oh the fun. You live on forever in our hearts, NightPope.