More Than Just Striking A Pose

Ryan Murphy’s Last (?) Series For FX Is A Ball

Some series that I choose not to watch are, at least initially, tied to my identity. I didn’t watch Atlanta or Insecure cause I’m not black and I didn’t watch The L Word because I’m not a lesbian. So to watch FX’s Pose, a series about African-American gays and transsexuals in the late 1980s seemed like the ultimate disconnect. Furthermore, Ryan Murphy’s work has always been a mixed bag for me, especially on FX: I have never gotten into American Horror Story or Nip/Tuck and it took me awhile to get into Feud or American Crime Story. So, even though the notices were raves when it debuted last summer, I basically ignored it, even after it did well at the Golden Globes and Broadcast Critics. Then I decided I had to at least take a look at Season 2 just before the Emmy nods came out. Holy God, I’m glad I did.

Murphy has always been an expert at portraying the outsiders in our culture, so despite not being black, he is the perfect showrunner for Pose. And he picks up the second season right at the cusp of the AIDS crisis — we open the season with Pray Tell (Billy Porter, absolutely magnificent) attending the funeral of another gay man who has died of the disease (the number is close to 250). The disease has struck the community as well — Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) has recently gone from HIV positive to having full blown AIDS. In an effort to fight this, a fellow gay physician (Sandra Bernhard) advises Blanca to begin raiding the medicine cabinet of rich white men who have died of the disease — something that was all too common in the early days of the disease. And she convinces Pray Tell that he has “to do something with his rage… or else it’ll eat you alive). This includes a real-life ‘die-in’ at the Church of Cardinal O’Connor, something that he is proud to get arrested for, and angry that his family will not participate.

Other members of the clans are having their own adjustments. Elektra (Dominque Jackson) has recently taken up a job at the Hellfire Club as a dominatrix at an S & M club. The darkness of this came very clear in the last episode, when a client OD’d in the stirrups, and she found herself rushing first to Blanca, and utterly rejecting the idea of doing the right thing, and then to another stripper, where it became very clear just how low on the totem pole the black woman ranks with law enforcement. What she eventually ends up doing would not have been out of place on Breaking Bad, but there is something so horrendous about it that Elektra, who has the boldest face of the group, has trouble sleeping weeks afterwards.

In a world this oppressive, its hard to find joy, and that it was the ballroom shows are for — acts of defiance that even hidden in the outer limits they stand for something. Yet there are signs that there may be hope — Madonna is entering the mainstream, and we see just what she really meant to the gay community back then. And there are minor triumphs that give hope — Blanca opens a boutique with a lady slumlord (Patti LuPone channels her inner Leona Helmsley) and manages to win the initial skirmish. And Angel, her daughter struggles to win a photo shoot with Esquire and fails, yet manages to win a job as the face of a department store makeup chain. In one of the more joyous moment of the series, the family goes to a drugstore and sees Angel in the makeup aisle.

I can imagine a lot of people will be upset just at the idea of this series, but that is the point of Pose (and indeed, much of Murphy’s work in general) We need series like this, not just because it employs gays and trans actors of color, but because they’re a part of society then — and now — that we want to forget exist. And they may isolate the mainstream, but the idea shouldn’t. I had doubts about the series in general and Billy Porter in particular being considered for Emmy nominations; within a few minutes of Season 2, they were completely eradicated. Murphy has always been a man who embraces extremes, and this is one extreme the community he should be glad he found. And if this is truly his last series for FX, he picked a hell of a show to go out with.

My score: 4.5 stars.