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The second season of FX’s Pose takes place in the summer of 1990, with the creeping influence of Madonna’s “Vogue” setting an optimistic tone. Even as her health struggles — introduced in the first season — continue to advance, Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca, founder and mother of the House of Evangelista, is feeling particularly upbeat.
“Madonna is shining a bright spotlight on us,” Blanca declares in Tuesday’s premiere, adding later, “We are on the cusp of a revolution.”
Air date: Jun 11, 2019
The dramatic irony, of course, is that although “Vogue” was a landmark of visibility for the Manhattan “ball” scene, many (or most) of the suburban teens and club kids who spent that summer striking a pose either didn’t know or didn’t give thought to the phenomenon’s origins, and the primary beneficiary was Madonna. If Blanca’s halcyon predictions had come true, the release of Pose nearly 30 years later would have been praised “simply” as a well-acted, big-hearted period piece and not as a wholly unprecedented slice of small-screen representation for the multicultural queer/trans communities. And it’s likely that creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals wouldn’t have needed to build one of the show’s primary spines around recognizable white, cis stars Evan Peters, Kate Mara and James Van Der Beek.
One year after the launch of Pose, maybe we’re back on the cusp of a revolution? The first season was justifiably acclaimed; star Billy Porter is at least a part of any thoughtful Emmy conversation; the series’ trans leads have been adequately and accurately positioned as the focus of the show; and the Peters/Mara/Van Der Beek storylines have been either excised entirely or at least put on a back burner through the season’s first four episodes.
This is not to say that I disliked the Peters/Mara/Van Der Beek parts of the first season. If they eventually return — Murphy is nothing if not a passionate devotee of Evan Peters — I’d have no qualms. It’s just thoroughly clear that those storylines were far from necessary to the heart or plot of Pose.
But this also isn’t to say that Pose has made a second season leap to “greatness” from “extremely good-ness.” The show continues to be a mixture of wonderful moments and head-scratching detours, of excess born of laudable ambition and excess born of nobody telling Murphy, “Maybe trim?” In both cases, fortunately, it’s more the former than the latter.
As you can tell from the centrality of “Vogue,” we’ve jumped forward a year or two in the storyline. House of Evangelista is still piling up ballroom trophies, but all isn’t perfect. Blanca’s T-cell count is low. She and Pray Tell (Porter) have a tally of the funerals and memorials they’ve attended that is now in the hundreds. The season begins with the two friends, so close that there should probably be some sort of conflict-of-interest recusal when Blanca’s house competes at balls MC-ed by Pray Tell, out at Hart Island, the Bronx-adjacent potter’s field with an isolated area sequestered for AIDS patients. It’s a harrowing start for a season that definitely has some enhanced sense of outrage directed at the government for its mishandling of the crisis and at doctors and drug companies for making early treatments available only to the wealthiest of patients. With the help of Sandra Bernhard’s Nurse Judy, Pray Tell’s involvement in ACT UP is one of the season’s most passionate threads.
Despite a mounting plague, the show hasn’t lost the optimism that was central to the closing episodes of the first season, restructuring the story as almost an AIDS-era fairy tale, with unavoidable core darkness and yet an unassailable hope that ducklings can become swans and swans can become princesses and the love of family can conquer all. These early episodes have Blanca, Angel (Indya Moore) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) all pursuing different unexpected professional aspirations that play off of unexpected strengths, whether it’s the stunning Angel’s vaunted ability to pass or Elektra’s impressive ability to dominate every room she walks into. Potential love stories see Angel Bismark Curiel’s Lil Papi becoming a central character, which isn’t a bad thing, and render Ryan Jamaal Swain’s dancing, other than voguing classes at the YMCA, a non-factor, which is less good.
There’s some floundering here. The third episode, directed by Janet Mock (writer of the strong second episode and co-writer of the fourth), goes sour around a body disposal detour that tries for almost wacky dark comedy and instead dips into a genre we now know Pose doesn’t do well. That misgauged farce is a bad setup for a funeral-based fourth episode in which Murphy, as director, buries some fine acting and potentially devastating beats in clumsy whimsy and a flabby 63-minute running time.
Like its characters, however, Pose generally recognizes its strengths. When I reviewed the show upon its initial premiere, Porter’s Pray Tell came across as a scene-stealing supporting role, only to emerge as a true lead by the standout “Love Is the Message” episode. The show is more and more conscious of how good Porter is at being hilarious one moment and lacerating (and self-lacerating) the next and even without any single moment as good as his karaoke duet with Blanca, it’s a more developed performance this time around. Jackson’s fierceness, Rodriguez’s bruised soulfulness and Moore’s resilient buoyancy are the driving forces for three performances that are truly great, not just representational milestones. No episode passed without Jackson making me laugh multiple times, Rodriguez breaking my heart a little and Moore’s star status becoming more and more apparent.
Mostly it’s the main returning characters, including Angelica Ross’ Candy and Hailie Sahar’s Lulu, who benefit from the screentime freed by the Peters/Mara/Van Der Beek absence. Expanded time for Nurse Judy is a mixed bag. When she’s sparring with Porter, Bernhard is very good, but when she’s asked to be an indignant expositional device or the fictionalized embodiment of a very real activist movement, it’s like she’s never seen the dialogue before and she becomes a real stumbling point. Better is Patti Lupone as a real estate queen whose name might as well be Heona Lelmsley and whose interactions with Rodriguez are a fussy, huffy hoot.
I expect that “Vogue” and Madonna are going to end up disappointing Blanca as the second season of Pose continues, falling short of promise. Thus far, thankfully, the return to Pose isn’t disappointing, and its promises, progressive and dramatic, are largely delivered upon.
Cast: Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, Angelica Ross, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Billy Porter, Dyllon Burnside, Angel Bismark Curiel, Sandra Bernhard
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)
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