After the first season finale, Joey Moser ponders whether Ryan Murphy’s ballroom opus can make its way to Emmy glory next year.
Pose is easily one of the best shows of the year, and that is thanks to creator Ryan Murphy’s acceptance of other members into his television family. The 8-episode drama, set in 1987, centers on the transgender and gay community in New York City and how they work the ballroom circuit as well as navigate politics of the time. Some viewers may have familiarized themselves with this world in Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking documentary, Paris Is Burning, but this fabulous saga focuses on a batch of new people as they struggle to get by and to find a family.
What Murphy and his team (which includes Janet Mock, Our Lady J, and Tina Mabry among others) have created is both entertaining and vital. It’s a series that looks toward a hopeful future while reminding us of a troubled and fraught past.
Learn Your LGBT Lessons Well
Ryan Murphy is a god among television executives and viewers. His shows are in your face and always have glamorous casts. This is a man who brings us gay cinematic history (Feud: Bette and Joan) but also unhinged carnival thrill rides (the ongoing American Horror Story series) within months of each other. Murphy can revitalize a actress’ career like no other producer working in television, but his last two projects reveal that he is giving back to the LGBTQ community through the form of storytelling.
While The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story started as a manhunt series, it evolved into an exploration of Andrew Cunanan’s psyche as well as anti-gay sentiment from the media and police enforcement. Set in the mid-90’s, the residual AIDS era epidemic looms over the entire series even wrapped in a glamorous, Fashion-Week packaging. Cunanan is desperate for approval and affection from his father and the men he thinks he deserves, but his tall tales and arrogance never permit anyone to truly get close to him. Pose is just the opposite. Its characters latch onto one another and form familial bonds as they struggle to even be seen as the people they are. They need each other to survive.
In the era of Grindr and PreP, the scariness of the AIDS epidemic may be new to younger LGBTQ audiences, but a lot of Pose’s central characters are dealing with a recent HIV-positive diagnosis. Blanca (Mj Rodroguez) is given the news in the first five minutes of the premiere, and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) receives his news mid-way through the season. One of the saddest scenes of the entire season is when Pray Tell lies to the young men in the House Evangelista because the rest of them have been told better news. There are various hospital scenes throughout the season that remind us of how abandoned gay people were during the crisis. Ronald Reagan’s name is mentioned once or twice, but the hospitals seem like ghost towns. We barely see any hospital staff or nurses—these people are left to die in dirty, rundown conditions. When Patty (Kate Mara) learns of Stan’s (Evan Peters) indiscretions with Angel (Indya Moore), she immediately gets tested for HIV because it is seen as a plague of the LGBTQ community.
While the HIV storylines are relevant and appropriate to the era, Pose succeeds by focusing on the bond of family rather than the disease. Audiences don’t need another story about gay people and AIDS, death, and pain. Yes, it is there, but Pose is about life and loving who you are—no matter the obstacle or consequence. That may sound trite, but the members of House Evangelista are fierce and strong. The struggle about one’s identity is much more compelling than any stale AIDS drama. Strut down that runway, darling, and show me how fabulous you are—not what might kill you.
The Trump Connection
We can’t escape Donald Trump’s presence in media, but instead of mocking him and turning him into a joke, Murphy shows us how dangerous he is. Sure, Trump isn’t a character in Pose (he almost was), but the future Commander in Chief is there in the form of James Van Der Beek’s Matt Bromley. With his slicked-back blond hair and power suits, Bromley is a sleazy and domineering character that imposes himself on other people. He feels like he is purposely invading the personal space of the women he speaks to in both his office and when he visits Patty when Stan isn’t home. Bromley kisses Patty purely as a power move, and I couldn’t help but think of Trump’s Access Hollywood interview recording with Billy Bush.
Other shows like Saturday Night Live have skewered Trump almost nonstop for two and a half years, but the comedy is getting repetitive. Audiences needed to laugh after Trump took office, but the straight-up comedy isn’t as effective anymore. With midterm elections looming, the focus needs to be on the work ahead, and Pose is a reminder of the world that Trump came from.
There have been many articles posted about how Pose includes a record number of trans artists both in front of and behind the camera—but it should be reiterated. There are more than 100 trans actors on screen. When we watch the ballroom scenes, it feels like we are watching footage from the Paris Is Burning cutting room floor, and that’s because no one feels out of place. There is an authenticity and a beautiful freedom that comes through when we see all of these actors connecting to the material.
We need to thank the creative team for trusting the audience with these stories. Not only do we have great performers like Rodriguez and Moore, but supporting players like Angelica Ross and Hailie Sahar round out an impressive cast. Whenever we move to the straight world (with Peters, Mara, and Van Der Beek), it’s jarring but that juxtaposition between worlds is so compelling. There is not a ScarJo casting blemish to be seen.
Behind the camera, the director’s reins have been handled by a family all its own. Janet Mock and Silas Howard have both directed episodes of Amazon’s Transparent. Nelson Cragg directed for Versace, Feud: Bette and Joan, and American Horror Story, and Gwyneth Horder-Payton has helmed episodes for Versace, 9-1-1, Feud, and Horror Story. Our Lady J, who also contributed toTransparent, wrote an episode of Pose.
A large majority of Americans have stated they have never met a trans person, so most of their exposure comes from the media or television and film. If audiences see cisgender actors playing trans characters, they will identify trans people with the identity of the actor or actress portraying that character. Trans actors, especially actors of color, are rarely welcomed to audition for roles offered to cisgendered actors.
The Category Is…Emmy Contention
Yes, Pose is groundbreaking in its casting. Yes, it tackles themes that are painfully relevant to this social and political climate. But it’s also damn good television. It’s warm, fierce, gaudy, and glamorous.
Of this year’s nominees for Outstanding Drama Series, some might not return next year. FX just aired the final season of The Americans, so we have a first opening there. Stranger Things released a fun teaser mall commercial trailer suggesting that the third season may not air until the summer of 2019. Will this make it ineligible for Emmys next season? If HBO goes all in for Game of Thrones next year, will they push Westworld back to focus on that? Rumor has it that Hulu will not release the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale soon, but no statement has been officially made.
Ryan Murphy has had a show nominated in almost every main category—Comedy (Glee), Limited Series (American Horror Story, The People v. OJ Simpson, Versace) and TV Movie (The Normal Heart)—but he has never had one of his shows nominated for Best Drama Series. The closest he’s come is when he was nominated for Directing for Nip/Tuck back in 2004. Is Mr. Murphy thirsty to conquer every branch of the Television Academy and expand his empire? While culturally significant and important, it’s key to remember that this was also just a great freshman season.
Even if Pose doesn’t crack into the main race next year, it has a chance to be a major player. Of the acting categories, the Television Academy might turn their nose up at the lesser known stars of Pose, but there is a veteran performer who could easily land a nomination. Billy Porter’s Pray Tell is literally the voice of the show. Not only does Pray Tell’s voice boom throughout the ballroom in every episode, but Porter’s Pray Tell endures tragedy in these 8 episodes. He loses his lover and contracts HIV and he slides into depression, but he is also resilient, fabulous, and brave. Porter, a Tony Award winner for his iconic portrayal of Lola in Kinky Boots, is the embodiment of what Pose represents. He acts the hell out of every syllable he’s given, but he’s also given to show off his legendary pipes with two songs in episode six, including a duet version of The Wiz‘s “Home” with Rodriguez’s Blanca.
The Emmys should just give the cast a special ensemble award, because every cast member should be recognized. Moore’s lovelorn Angel might be my favorite for how her pout and toughness live side by side; Angel Bismark Curiel’s Lil Papi lights up every scene he’s in with his mega-watt grin, and Ryan Jamaal Swain and Dyllon Burnside (as Damon and Ricky) give us a young couple to root for. Rodriguez is a major find as Blanca. She’s nurturing and guarded, but there are moments on her face that seem legitimately candid and caught on camera (her face melting when Darius asks her out reveals a girlish glee we haven’t seen all season). I also feel bad for whoever competes against Lou Eyrich’s costume design next season. Seriously—just engrave it now.
Next year’s Emmys are a long ways ahead, but Pose is the first huge contender that is both refreshing and vital. It is sad that we are still able to see how the struggles of these trans characters relate to people struggling to claim their own identity. Pose‘s first season is a wake-up call long overdue.
Give it to the legendary children. They are the future, after all.