[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers from “Pose” Season 2, Episode 1, “Acting Up.”]
Although Ryan Murphy premiered “Pose” last year as his final series for FX before departing for Netflix’s lucrative streaming waters, he hasn’t abandoned the series by any means. The uber producer follows up his stellar first season by giving fans what they want: more. That means more attitude, more costumes, more heartache, and more LGBTQ realness. He’s basically following the law of the ballroom in which less is not more. More is more. More wins trophies.
But even if being extra is its own fabulous reward, this celebration of the ’80s underground ballroom culture coexists within the brutal reality faced by queer people. “Pose” goes darker and gives more cultural context to that era’s everyday struggles with a depth and thoughtfulness that miniseries like “Angels in America” and “When We Rise” could not. The end result, while a little crowded and messy, is the feeling of a culture that is truly, finally being seen.
The season kicks off with this intense desire to be recognized and acknowledged. It’s 1990, and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) has joined the advocacy group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, aka ACT UP, which gains international attention from its acts of civil disobedience to bring an end to the disease. At the same time (and fudging the dates a little bit), Madonna’s “Vogue” is topping the charts, and this gives House of Evangelista mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) hope that the song’s popularity will turn the spotlight on their community since that’s where the dance craze originated.
The voguing itself in the series is sublime — fluid, imaginative, and making A Statement at the raucous, ramped-up balls. As seen in the photo above, “Pose” leans into the camp of the drag ball culture that was prevalent long before the Met Gala decided to dip its toes into the cheeky lavishness. This season, the category is: Extravagance.
Just about everything that is wonderful about the first season gets expanded, and that means that Porter, who had previously been in a supporting role as Pray Tell, is no longer merely emceeing events. He is taking charge and delivering fiery monologues and takedowns that are both awe-inspiring and intimidating to witness. Like a preacher, but with more fashion sense, he preaches to his flamboyant flock and even takes them to task when they stray.
He also becomes more integrated with the House of Evangelista, strengthening those family bonds with Blanca and Angel (Indya Moore), who share duties as the beating heart of the show. Mama Blanca is pushing her children to reach for bigger dreams than they’ve even dared to consider, while Angel (Moore) is realizing that she can serve face beyond the ballroom. It’s the conventional story of a young woman breaking free of her more humble roots, but the difficulties she faces in society gives her story added poignance. One cannot help but root for the two women who exude pureness of intent and warmth.
“Pose” is at its best when orbiting these three characters, which makes this season’s first two outings a joy to watch. Even when the show blatantly resets the power dynamics in the premiere by having Elektra (Dominique Jackson) revert to her ungrateful and self-serving diva ways, that can’t dampen the mood. Unfortunately, one particular storyline involving her feels bizarre and manufactured, despite an important takeaway about the transgender woman’s experience.
The series’ biggest misstep occurs midway through the season when it takes a huge swing that could pay off in theory. It’s an ambitious and stylistic storytelling choice that has a strong message and even sticks the landing. But the bulk of the episode misses the emotional mark because the groundwork hasn’t been laid sufficiently. If the episode had occurred later in the season, it may have resonated more deeply. But in a show that values integrity to push through the glitter and glam, this installment rings false despite some killer moments by Porter.
It’s admirable for “Pose” to experiment with its structure, even though those narrative flourishes detract from the message. The show is most successful when it balances the over-the-top ballroom spectacle with simplicity and authenticity. This season, each episode ends with an onscreen quote from the community: stark white lettering against a black background. In the spirit of “Vogue,” the words strike a pose for maximum impact. And it works.
“Pose” airs on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.