The initial buzz surrounding the first season of “Pose” was that, though it had the largest transgender cast ever assembled, its marketing push featured three white actors in relatively straight roles. But within an episode or two, it became clear this was not the case. The show’s authentically diverse ensemble cast of Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore and others is what truly makes this series stand out. Despite being first set in the mid-1980s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Murphy’s story was a joyful one.
Now, just in time for Pride Month, “Pose” returns with a second season that focuses even more clearly on the ball community while allowing some of the era's painful realities to quietly creep into the frame.
“Pose” returns with a second season that focuses even more clearly on the ball community while allowing some of the era's painful realities to quietly creep into the frame.
Season one opened with an iconic scene of mischief, extravagant ballgowns and extraordinary voguing, a celebration of the fantasy escapism that viewers were meeting for the first time. Season two has a much darker opening scene, forcing us to face the stark reality of the AIDS crisis. Two of the show’s characters Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) take the long journey to Hart Island, the site of the city’s mass graveyard where unknown and unclaimed bodies are unceremoniously dumped. In this potter’s field they lay a heart shaped stone with the name of their friend, an AIDS victim, adding to an ever-growing pile of stones which over the years is just going to get bigger.
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Things don’t get easier from there. T-cell counts are down, former HIV-positive diagnoses are moving into the AIDS category. Bottles of AZT are being passed around, even as everyone acknowledges these drugs aren’t solving the crisis. Sandra Bernhard, who plays HIV ward nurse Judy, has moved from guest star to series regular simply because characters are visiting her on such a regular basis now. Scenes of the ballroom are mixed with scenes of ACT UP protests. (There’s even a reenactment of the famous St. Patrick’s die-in protest that became a turning point in the AIDS awareness movement.)
In the ballroom, anger is seeping onto the stage as characters slowly come to terms with the scope of this plague and their chances surviving it. At one point, almost an entire episode is given over to the funeral of a high-profile character. This isn’t survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the lucky few.
And yet, the characters haven’t lost the spark that made the first season so fantastic. The show has also jumped forward in time, from 1987 to the spring of 1990. Neither of these dates were chosen accidentally: season one was an homage to seminal documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which started filming that year. 1990 is the year Madonna’s “Vogue” was released, bringing with it mainstream ballroom exposure. Two members of the House of Xtravaganza starred in the video and would eventually go on tour with Madonna. “Vogue” is everywhere in the new season’s early going, not only as the soundtrack blasting from Z-100 and the ballroom’s DJ, but as an inspiration to our characters. If Madonna is ready for the ball, New York City must follow.
But will it? Some, like Porter’s character Pray Tell, thinks this is a stretch, but Rodriguez’s Blanca reasons that the natural next step is for her house to reach for mainstream fame. Either way, time is running short for everyone — both those who are sick and those who are scraping by on the streets. And yet, the show allows that perhaps dreams of acceptance can come true, at least for a little while.
And that’s the charm of “Pose;” that even in the midst of a health crisis and an unequal and cruel society, dreams can sometimes come true. Whether it’s landing a modeling campaign or opening one’s own storefront, rented from a woman (Patti LuPone) who names her dogs “Cash” and “Credit,” Ryan Murphy’s characters are finding ways to make life worth living. Hope can be found on the dance floor, in community and in a four-minute song Madonna randomly tacked on to the end of the otherwise 1940s jazz-era influenced “Dick Tracy” soundtrack.
“Pose” continues to defy the expectations of hardened reality so many high-profile shows feel compelled to depict in order to be taken seriously. And that’s at least partly because its characters don’t need reality to get any harder. For too long, transgender and LGBTQ communities have known the answer to the question, “what if the hero dies?” Instead, “Pose” explores how it feels to see the next generation make strides towards a more equitable future, one many of the show’s heroes and heroines will never live to see. The world may be pushing down, but “Pose" is here once again to lift everyone up.