The FX series returns for a second season as bright and entertaining as ever. Now with more Billy Porter!
In its first season, Pose was a landmark television series. Featuring countless trans people in front of the camera and behind the scenes, the FX series was unlike anything else on TV. If there was one element that didn’t quite work, it was series creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals’ decision to include a white, Trump-in-training subplot about a married man (played by Evan Peters) dipping into the ball world in order to sell a series fronted primarily by unknown actors of colour.
In season two, the training wheels are off and that perspective is no longer required. Peters, his onscreen wife (Kate Mara) and his belligerent boss (James VanDerBeek) are all notably absent as the members of House Evangelista, Ferocity and the new House of Wintour rightfully take their place in the spotlight.
Season two jumps ahead two years to 1990 and is informally organized around two dominant cultural moments: the plague that is the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the ascending popularity of Madonna’s new single, “Vogue.”
The premiere, “Acting Up,” is a great table setter co-written by Murphy, Falchuk, and Canals. Like most of Pose’s episodes, the narrative focus is principally organized around a few characters – in this case, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez). The pair are struggling with the impact of AIDS at both the community and the personal level. In the pre-title sequence, they visit Hart Island, where tuberculosis patients were once kept, and where the bodies felled by AIDS are now being unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave without headstones or markers.
It’s a startling and evocative visual that – between this and the banter with nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard) about the number of funerals they’ve attended – helps to hammer home how much the disease is ravaging the community. With its lush costuming, sensational balls and catty quips that flow oh-so-eloquently out of Elektra (Dominique Jackson)’s mouth, Pose has always provided exceptional entertainment value; with its renewed focus on weaving queer history into its narrative, however, the show is at the height of its powers.
This first episode introduces both AZT, the early version of the life-saving medication that only rich, white members of the queer community can afford, as well as Act Up!, the community group that organizes protests against religious and political leaders who disseminate false information about the spread of the disease. In one of the strongest visual moments in the four episodes available for review, Blanca, Pray Tell and the rest of the Evangelista family stage a “Die In” during Cardinal O’Connor’s Sunday service. With the prone bodies contrasted by slogans and storming police officers all captured on video by the news cameras, there’s an undeniable “ripped from the headlines” vitality to the sequence.
At times, though, this educational, politically-minded approach to the narrative works at odds with Pose’s more conventional dramatic leanings. The premiere also introduces Angel (Indya Moore)’s second season arc: at Blanca’s insistence, House Evangelista’s most passable female member embarks on a quest to leave behind sex work and become a model. The storyline that follows, however, is overly simplistic, familiar and expedited. Despite Moore’s inherent likability as a performer, there’s very little freshness left to explore in a rags-to-success tale coupled with a side of sexual abuse.
Still, the pervasive optimistic belief that the world is on the cusp of change thanks to the increased attention on the community as a result of Madonna’s hit song is fascinating narrative territory to mine. In addition to Angel’s modelling, Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain)’s teaching Voguing classes, Ricky (Dyllon Burnside)’s touring as a back-up dancer and Blanca opts to leave behind the safety of her job to open her own nail salon. In one of the show’s best pieces of stunt-casting, Patti LuPone recurs as the real-estate developer who unwillingly rents the space to Blanca and the anticipation of an epic showdown between them later in the season is drool-worthy.
If there is a pervasive element that distinguishes Pose, it is this focus on hope and family in the face of adversity. Blanca and Pray Tell deliver no shortage of inspirational speeches – at the dinner table, at the ball pulpit, and yes, at the funeral home – and while there is always an acknowledgment that as queers, as blacks, as trans, as poor and vulnerable, the deck is always stacked against them, there is also no shortage of belief in the future. Blanca believes that ‘Vogue’ will usher in a new dawn and nurse Judy believes that AZT has the potential to keep them alive long enough for a more effective treatment; despite how deluded they are about the invincibility of youth, Angel, Donald and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) are unwilling to relinquish their grip on their dreams. Even caustic Elektra, with her petty rivalries and lack of tact, comes together in times of need, desperation, and death to lean on family.
It is inspiring and, yes, occasionally even emotionally manipulative, but that hardly matters.
Of the four episodes, the first and fourth are highlights. The third, which focuses primarily on an ill-fated romance inside House Evangelista and answers the question of where Elektra’s sudden wealth comes from, is easily the weakest. Still, the increased screen time allocated to Billy Porter (simply divine), the elimination of unnecessary white subplots, and the increased focus on politically relevant discussions of AIDS and trans rights all help to overcome the occasional dip in storytelling.
Bottom line: if the category is “Ground-Breaking Television,” then the winner – with 10s across the board – is undoubtedly Pose.
Pose premieres tonight on FX, and struts the ball floor Tuesdays at 10pm EST.