Pose Lets In the Light

Ryan Murphy’s show about ball culture in 1990s New York City is joyfully, insistently, chaotically optimistic.

Pose is at its best when it owns the inherent seriousness of its subject matter. (FX)

Pose, FX’s vibrant series about ball culture in 1988 New York, is defined by joy and by love, but most of all by presence—the idea that simply being yourself in a specific space can be a revolutionary act. That space can be a dance floor, or it can be the set of a mainstream TV drama. The characters of Pose, the house mothers and queens and LGBTQ voguers who congregated in Season 1 to compete against one another’s exuberant charades, are asserting their presence in a world that’s usually ill-inclined to receive it. And the series is desperately aware of how much that means. “The reality is, for trans women of color, the current average life expectancy is 35 years old,” Pose’s co-creator Steven Canals told The Wrap in an interview this week. “It’s critically important for us to have trans women of color up on-screen not just surviving, but thriving.”

Pose is a unicorn for so many reasons. It has the largest cast of trans actors ever assembled for a scripted series, while also being committed to representation behind the scenes. (Its creative team includes the author and activist Janet Mock and the musician and writer Our Lady J.) Pose also defiantly rejects the ways in which LGBTQ characters have historically been portrayed on television as subplots or symbols of suffering. The show, as Pilot Viruet wrote in an essay for TV Guide this week, is “a triumphant celebration of queerness and community,” one that refuses to let its characters become fodder for teachable moments or trauma porn. Its overriding mood is one of optimism and hope. The problem is that reality—that same reality Canals spoke about—keeps intruding anyway, and the show’s ebullient tone and its bleaker scenes can sometimes be discordant.

The first season of Pose introduced Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a member of the ballroom scene’s House of Abundance, whose HIV diagnosis spurred her to strike out on her own and become a house mother to all the dancers and vulnerable “children” she could nurture. They included Angel (Indya Moore), a sex worker, and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a dancer whose parents threw him out of their house for being gay. Blanca’s House of Evangelista faced off against Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the ferocious sovereign of the House of Abundance, at balls emceed by the designer and community linchpin Pray Tell (Billy Porter). These festivities of radiant spectacle, with their themed tableaux and gestural high fashion, played out against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, which claimed Pray Tell’s partner as an early victim. (Season 1’s subplot featuring Angel’s lover, a Donald Trump employee played by Evan Peters, and his cocaine-whiffing boss, portrayed by James Van Der Beek, has been excised, a move that rightfully focuses the show back on Blanca.)

Season 2 flashes forward to 1990, a time when AIDS was devastating New York’s queer community. The most moving scene of the four episodes made available for review comes right at the beginning, as Pray and Blanca take a boat to Hart Island to honor one of their friends. There, they come face to face with the cruelty of the epidemic: unclaimed bodies in plywood boxes buried in mass graves, quarantined far away from the city. On one side of the island, visitors have left pebbles bearing the names of loved ones to commemorate people whose family and friends couldn’t afford proper burials—a field pitted with inscribed stones. Later, Pray runs into a nurse, Judy (Sandra Bernhard), at a memorial and tells her that it is his 210th service. It’s her 452nd. The first to hit 1,000, she quips, “wins a free toaster.”

The episode, which is written by Canals with Pose’s other co-creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, sets a mood that feels reverent and sad, and that underscores the stakes of what Pose’s characters are fighting for. At night, on the dance floor, the various houses compete to be seen, but also to be appreciated in a world that affirms their worth. (Or, in the case of Pray Tell’s scathing commentary, to be lovingly shredded to pieces.) Pray and Blanca are also compelled by Judy to join the ACT UP protests advocating for more federal investment in researching AIDS, in scenes that echo Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of The Normal Heart. And on MTV, Madonna’s “Vogue” is threatening to bring ball culture into the mainstream, a development that Blanca quixotically hopes will make her children stars.

As ever, Pose excels at portraying performance. Its ballroom scenes are shimmering dioramas of exuberance and expression; its characters reinvent themselves as historical divas, Shakespearian characters, and avant-garde fashion plates. Creative energy diffuses around the room like light beams from a mirror ball. The fairy-tale vibe is contagious and, across the community, dreams are actually coming true: Moore’s Angel is pursuing work as a model, while Rodriguez’s Blanca is setting up her own business, in a story that loops in a sharklike businesswoman played by Patti LuPone. But there are periodic reminders of how vulnerable Pose’s characters are to predatory photographers, bigoted landlords, snake-oil salesmen, and even a white megastar who’s appropriating their culture all the way to the top of the charts.

There are also moments of tragedy that jibe awkwardly with the show’s zany comic interludes. Pose has always been a worthwhile series rather than a well-crafted one, and its writing in Season 2 veers all over the place, between heartfelt, didactic, over-explanatory, and anachronistic. (Elektra establishes a new house named Wintour after “the legendary editor in chief of the sacred text that is Vogue”—who, in 1990, had only just been hired—and then declares, “Wintour is coming.”) But strangest of all is the way the series fluctuates in its tone and sense of humor. This is a show that seems to stress the imperative of treating the dead and dying with dignity, no matter the circumstances. And yet it’s also willing to throw in a screwball, episode-long caper about the gruesome disposal of an inconvenient corpse.

Pose is at its best when it owns the inherent seriousness of its subject matter, acknowledging the scale of deaths within the LGBTQ community during the 1990s and the shameful truth that trans women of color continue to be as vulnerable now as they were then. It’s understandable, and admirable, that Canals wants to tell a different story than audiences are used to, one in which estranged parents show up when they’re needed, faith and kindness are rewarded, and ball culture is a salve for the cruelty of the outside world. But there are ways to balance comedy and tragedy so that they don’t threaten to undermine each other. Still, in a handful of scenes, Pose pulls this act off with perfect equipoise, a model of how to embody light in the dark.