More than just an “important” show, Steven Canals’ pioneering queer series backs up its import with heart and style.
A lot of the discourse surrounding Pose tends to focus on how groundbreaking it is, and rest assured Ryan Murphy’s drama is certainly that. Prior to the 2010s, queer media almost exclusively focused on the G in LGBT+ and most of those gay men were white and cis. By contrast, Pose’s main cast stars people of color, most of whom are trans. This diversity is behind the camera as well, being partially created by Steve Canals with writing and directing credits by Janet Mock and Our Lady J.
While I agree that we need to point out that Pose is an important show, we also need to emphasize that it’s also a good show. It’s a triumph of television independent of its trailblazer status with compelling storylines and memorable characters. Thankfully, its third and final season gives the series a finale that befits its legendary status.
Like season 2, the show takes a massive time jump from its preceding episode, this time to 1994. We find that the House of Evangelista has been absent from the ball scene due to the characters moving on with their lives. Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) is a nurse’s aide, Angel (Indya Moore) and Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) are busy with Angel’s modeling career and their engagement, Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) is auditioning for dance positions, LuLu (Hailie Sahar) is studying to become an accountant and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) is trying to rebound from her dominatrix business being shut down.
With all that going on, walking the ball is the last thing on this chosen family’s mind until they are inspired to compete once again after a former house member dies. But while their return to the scene is truly “sickening,” the focus is less on ballroom drama and more on the emotional state of the characters. It’s clear that the showrunners want to have the characters truly change and grow during this season in a way they never could when the show was ongoing.
This is most true for Elektra, whose role in the show has completely changed. In previous seasons she was mostly an antagonistic force as a rival mother and frenemy to Blanca. Here she is an unabashed ally to the cast. Where before she was duplicitous and self-serving, she becomes more sympathetic and goodhearted, even if she has a prickly exterior. Not only is this growth satisfying to watch, but it also allows Jackson to broaden her acting range. Elektra’s ice queen personality could be a little one-note at times, but now Jackson can show the vulnerable side to the previously untouchable diva, and it leads to some of the best scenes in the series.
While Elektra’s growth is the most dramatic, the real heart of the season is the ball’s emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter). The acceleration of the effects of HIV/AIDS on his body and the psychological trauma of seeing so many of his friends dying leads him to take comfort in alcohol. His journey to overcome his demons becomes the driving narrative of the plot and the emotional hinge of the finale. The result is a fearless performance by Porter that expertly balances psychological rawness, dignity, and Pray Tell’s trademark fabulousness.
Ironically, it’s Blanca, the show’s protagonist, who is given the least development. While she has her storyline of becoming a nurse and dating a hunky doctor, her characterization is mostly static. Granted, she has always been portrayed as saintly throughout the series, so her conflict is the most external of the cast no matter the season.
It is a triumph of television independent of its trailblazer status with compelling storylines and memorable characters.
Not that there would be much time for Blanca’s character development, since the season is an abbreviated one, with only seven episodes. As such, the showrunners have to cram a lot of stories in a relatively short amount of time. This results in a few confusing moments: characters change jobs or go through events offscreen with little explanation as to what’s going on. It also leads to dropped storylines, such as a rival house that features prominently in the first two episodes but then isn’t mentioned again without any real resolution.
Fortunately, the dropped storylines have minimal impact on the overall plot, and the truncated stories still make sense. Pose’s pension for high melodrama also helps keep the rushed nature of the writing to be too distracting. While the show tackles some heavy issues, it handles them with heightened emotions and soap-operatic storylines. At times the series can verge on the ridiculous, with spontaneous musical numbers and scenes that turn from dramatic to campy on a dime, yet the impact is never lessened by the camp. After all, how can any scene feel over the top when the next one takes place in the sumptuous world of the ball scene? Pose may not always be realistic, but it has emotional realness.
This emotional realness carries the show even when its plot gets uneven. The narrative builds beautifully, climbing to a finale that shows the characters realizing their full potential with all their joys, pain, struggles, and triumphs coming to a head. The third season may not be flawless, but when it comes to satisfying endings, the series finale is tens across the board.
Obviously, a TV show isn’t automatically high quality just because it’s the first to tackle a subject matter, but Pose is good because it knows how important it is to get its subject matter right.
The cast is full of people who Hollywood rarely takes seriously: people of color are historically cast as sidekicks, gay men are the butt of jokes, people living with HIV/AIDS are reduced to their disease, and trans women are often portrayed as deceivers and deviants. But the showrunners have proved that if you portray these people with all the complexity of their lives you can create a story that appeals to both those within and outside the communities you’re portraying. And that makes Pose truly legendary.
Pose hits the runway one final time on FX starting May 2nd.