The Pitch: It’s 1990, and Madonna’s “Vogue” dominates the airwaves; the LGBTQ+ culture of New York City is thriving, centered around the extravagant house-ballroom community. Aspirational house mother Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez) sees this as a turning point for the mainstreaming of the ball community, even if it’s filtered through an exploitative white lens. But life for young queer and trans black and brown kids in NYC is still no picnic, between the rising body count of the AIDS crisis and the risks of violence that beset trans people of color. (A reminder that presently, 26 trans and nonbinary people were killed just last year, most of them trans people of color.)
For the houses of Evangelista and Ferocity, those new challenges manifest in striking journeys: Blanca and ball MC Pray Tell (Billy Porter) struggle with their advancing AIDS diagnoses, while Angel (Indya Moore) begins a budding modeling career despite the risks of being clocked as a trans woman. Elektra (Dominique Jackson), a disgraced house mother now living under the Evangelista’s roof, wrestles with finding her place in the ball community after her stumbles in season one, and the community as a whole begins to organize (thanks to groups like ACT UP) to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. For many in this struggling community, the category is “survival.”
“Our Greatest Asset Is Our Authenticity”: Pose felt revolutionary when it premiered last year. Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals’ series was as empowering and hilarious as it was bittersweet, crafting a stellar cast with killer representation for trans women on both sides of the camera. It’s refreshing to report that season two continues that trajectory, at least in the four episodes provided to critics before the premiere.
The show’s tone is more assured and its characters are now firmly established. Absent is the first season’s extraneous subplot featuring Evan Peters as a confused finance bro struggling with his own sexual identity; he, Kate Mara, and James Van Der Beek are all gone. This also means no more cheap, cringing Trump jabs, which is a welcome change. Instead, Pose places a laser focus on its winning cast of queer and trans actors of color.
Porter’s work is impeccable and iconic as always, spitting venomous reads as effortlessly as he cries out for empathy and advocacy amidst his evolving push into activism. Rodriguez continues to spit absolute fire as the fierce house mother willing to do anything to protect herself and her children, especially as she begins a bid to start her own business, bumping into a delightfully caustic Patti Lupone as a mob-connected landlady. Jackson is still haughtily fierce as Elektra, while both Hallie Sahar and Angelica Ross shine bright as house outcasts Lulu and Candy.
But it’s Moore who takes the greatest leap forward, freed from Angel’s straight white beau in the first season. She’s a deep well of yearning, Moore pouring out their heart and soul into Angel’s budding stardom. (Writer’s note: Moore is nonbinary and prefers they/them pronouns.) Like many of Pose‘s grander moments, Angel’s rise to fame plays out like a fairy tale, and one sorely needed amid this season’s deep well of melancholy.
SILENCE = DEATH: Thus far, the specter of death looms large over every episode of season two. “I’ve been to three funerals this week,” Pray vents to Blanca in the season’s opening minutes, as they travel to Hart Island, where lies a mass grave of unclaimed bodies, many of whom were AIDS victims. “Where’s the cure?”
The two share their terror at their respective diagnoses, as their nurse friend Judy (Sandra Bernhard, joining the regular cast this season) urges them to begin taking AZT pills that might slow the progression of their disease. Our characters spend as much time in funeral blacks as their opulent ball lewks, to the point where Pray and Judy darkly joke to one another about who’ll be the first to attend their thousandth memorial service.
(Read: TV Performance of the Year: Billy Porter Willed the Past into the Present with Pose)
But Pose‘s tight-knit queer family isn’t willing to take this lying down. The second season places its characters more at the forefront of activism than ever before. The ball culture isn’t just about walking categories and snatching trophies anymore; it’s a platform by which to organize and galvanize around their fellow LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
The scripts and direction, spearheaded by trans women Our Lady J and Janet Mock, as well as longtime FX director Gwyneth Horder-Payton, depict the desperation of these impacted communities with fiercer determination. Such emphasis ranges from the dramatization of a “die-in” at a Catholic church (echoing ACT UP’s real-life “Stop the Church” demonstrations in the ’90s), to the many stark quotes about queer struggle following each episode from queer icons such as Hector Xtravaganza.
The Category Is… None of this, however, is meant to imply that Pose is a dirge. Just as the ball scene and its opulence were many queer and trans kids’ escape from the miseries of the cis/white world, the balls of Pose amp up their presentational energy to match its characters’ greater yearnings. The outfits are more fabulous, the categories more high-concept — wait until you see Elektra dressed up as Marie Antoinette, or Angel and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) play out Romeo and Juliet on the floor — and Pray Tell’s commentary even more uproarious.
Even in the show’s most heart-wrenching moments, a sense of gay fantasia pervades, particularly in an episode in which the houses deal with a tragic, unexpected loss. The resulting hour of mourning transforms into a magical celebration of that character’s life, complete with ghostly conversations, reconciliations, and a dazzling send-off courtesy of Stephanie Mills’ “I Never Knew Love Like This Before”.
It’s enough to leave you in a puddle on the floor.
The Verdict: The second season of Pose isn’t perfect; the third episode features a darkly comic, Elektra-centric storyline that clashes too heavily with the eulogic, memorial nature of the episodes surrounding it. Apart from that tiny wrinkle, though, it’s 10s across the board so far.
If Pose were just a fun, entertaining platform for trans actors and creators, it’d be substantially valuable on those grounds alone. But Canals, Murphy et al use their unique position to situate the show as a vital snapshot of the early days of queer and trans culture, a reminder of the struggles the LGBTQ community had to endure to get where they are now, and how quickly those victories can be taken away. It’s a warm hug and a battle cry in equal measure, and it remains absolutely vital television.
Where’s It Playing?: Pose‘s second season premieres tonight on FX, and walks the ball floor Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST.