‘Pose’ Made History. Now It’s More Important Than Ever.
Ryan Murphy, Billy Porter, Janet Mock, and more take us inside Season Two of FX’s revolutionary drama, promising more joy, more tragedy, and the arrival of Madonna.
A disco ball the size of a wrecking ball hangs from the center of the room, the fabulous sun around which all the chaos, the glamour, the heart, the pain, and the fashion, honey, orbits. It is the central element of the Pose set, splashing pancake-sized dots of light on the performers assembled for a ballroom scene, reflecting off their sequins, shoulder pads, and bright makeup like solar flares of love.
From our perch hidden in the rafters, we see all shapes, colors, and representations of the gender spectrum among the performers, who are draped over folding chairs, crouching on the floor, or peering over the balcony in order to catch a glimpse of the dancers voguing 20 feet below. A routine from a group of male dancers crescendos until a break dancer is finally spinning on his head, the cheers in the room approaching ear-splitting heights that actor Billy Porter still, miraculously, manages to boom his rasping commentary over.
“We have changed the culture!” Porter shouts as Pray Tell, the emcee of the ball and ceremonial grandfather to the various LGBTQ characters we’re introduced to in the groundbreaking FX series, which tells the stories of a group of trans women and gay men of color who find home and a family in New York City’s legendary ballroom scene in 1987. “Shit, we are the motherfucking culture!”
Everyone hollers with approval. It is the most joy I have ever seen on a TV set.
The entire take lasts almost 10 minutes. Director Ryan Murphy, who co-created the show with Steven Canals and Brad Falchuck, wants it to look messier. Happily, everyone resets and goes again. There’s so much love, so much color, so much energy that it makes your head spin. Then, on cue, the dancer is once again spinning on his head.
“I think in season two the show is bigger,” Murphy says during a break from directing the episode, the fourth of the season. He’s sitting at a table about a dozen feet away from a dress Dominique Jackson’s Elektra wears, in which she pretends to be Marie Antoinette getting guillotined. The skirt of the dress features a carousel that actually rotates.
“It does seem bigger,” he reiterates. “And the themes seem bigger.” Among other things, Madonna has arrived.
Season one of Pose centered on Blanca, played by Mj Rodriguez, the adoptive mother to the House of Evangelista, a group of children she houses, cares for as her own, and coaches for ball competitions. The series made history for assembling the largest cast of LGBTQ actors ever for a scripted show. Rodriguez, along with co-stars Jackson, Indya Moore, Angelica Ross, and Hailie Sahar, instantly became the most visible trans actresses in Hollywood.
Murphy brought in writer and activist Janet Mock, who would become a producer, the first trans woman of color to ever be hired full-time into a series writer’s room and, then, to direct an episode of television. Our Lady J, an alum of Transparent, was also hired as a writer.
The result of all this was authenticity merged with education all in the name of powerful entertainment: a study of this community at the dawn of the AIDS crisis that is, at its heart, a radical celebration of joy, hope, and resilience.
Season two picks up the action in March of 1990 with the release of Madonna’s “Vogue,” which is infamous for bringing the principles, the fashion, and the dance of the ballroom community to the mainstream, if incidentally erasing them from the cultural moment.
It divides the community. Blanca sees it as an opportunity, a turning point. “Not just for her, for the community as a whole,” Rodriguez says. Adds Mock, “Other characters think we need to shut the doors, that this is going to just be a fad and they are going to treat us like a fad.”
As the scene we’re watching Murphy direct continues, this tension plays out on the ballroom floor. Candy (played by Ross) struts through the crowd dressed in Madonna’s signature cone bra, pinstripe suit, and high ponytail, eager to embrace the “Vogue” moment. Pray Tell admonishes her for being foolish. How these characters navigate a precarious cultural transition is going to be a broader theme of the season—and not just when it comes to a certain Material Girl.
“I remember it so many times, the idea—and I feel this in my life—that if you’re a marginalized group, you feel like, finally, I’m at the party,” says Murphy. “Then you have the moment and you’re like, oh no, I’m really not.”
Here, too, you have a show that has made history. Season one was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama. It won a Peabody Award. Its actors, especially Porter, have become major stars in their own right, scoring invites to the Oscars and stunning the Met Gala red carpet. As season two begins Tuesday night on FX, the question becomes: What happens when a show like this arrives and is given a seat at the table?
It’s not just “Vogue” that arrives in season two. So, too, does the fever pitch of the AIDS epidemic. Characters who fight for their lives every day by authentically existing are now also fighting the threat of disease. Sandra Bernhard is a series regular this season, drafting the House of Evangelista into the activist group ACT UP.
If “Vogue” is shining a spotlight on the community, reality is making life darker.
“Does each episode end on a happy note? No. But it ends on a hopeful note,” Murphy says. He points out that a month before Pose’s season two premiere, the first season was made available for streaming worldwide on Netflix.
“I was trying to think what would I have done at 12 years old if I had seen a show like this that was about my community and my world,” he says. “So I’m very conscious for young people to know that it is sometimes hard but you can get through it. And you can get through it with a sense of dignity and humor.”
It was a long runway that Pose had to walk before anyone would make the show, let alone before it would be celebrated.
Canals wrote his first draft of Pose as a love letter to the “miraculous” queer, trans, black, and Latinx people who, he says, “managed to create a community in the face of a plague, violence, and familial rejection.” He had countless meetings with executives, all with feedback that didn’t just amount to rejection—“Who is this for?” “Who would air this?”—but the further devaluing of a marginalized community.
Then he met Ryan Murphy.
It had been just over a week since Murphy’s People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story took home nine Emmy Awards. And yet the hottest creator in show business, at the peak of his success, was willing to say yes to the project everyone else turned down.
But Pose was a case when even being Ryan Murphy didn’t matter—that’s how tough of a sell it was. He says it was the first time since Glee he had to make a pilot that wasn’t immediately picked up to series. “I remember saying, ‘You just have to trust me,’” he laughs. “You just have to write me a multimillion-dollar check.”
The laughter is purely in hindsight. He was serious that, if he was going to do this, he was going to do it the way it deserves.
“What was important to me was that I did not want to be patted on the head and told, OK, here’s a very small amount of money now go make it,” he says. “I said from the very beginning that I’m only going to do this show if it costs as much as O.J. did. Or if you give it the marketing and P&A and everything that is exactly the same as shows in my canon that have been a hit. And they did.”
The first sequence of season two ranks as one of the most expensive Pose has shot (and this is a series that launched with a heist at the Met and stages massive balls each week), not to mention one of the most emotionally devastating.
Pray Tell and Blanca make a pilgrimage to Hart Island, which, off the east coast of the Bronx, used to house a tuberculosis ward. During the AIDS crisis, it is where unclaimed bodies of people who died from the disease were buried in mass unmarked graves.
“Imagine a crew of 500 people going to the furthest remote, surrounded-by-water area of New York,” Murphy says. “That is expensive. But emotional. It’s history. I never knew [about Hart Island]. I feel like LGBTQ history is so important and so undocumented. Millions of people will now learn about this and be outraged.”
Minutes later, we’re back on the ballroom floor. The juxtaposition highlights the series’ tonal tango.
“The creativity, the joy, the color of the glitz and the glamour, but then also keeping it deeply anchored in the struggle of the real-life experiences with these people outside of the ballroom,” Mock says, explaining that the Hart Island sequence is an example of Murphy’s directive to “go a little darker” this season. The fourth episode, while launching with the raucous fun of the dance we’re watching Murphy film, is an unbelievably heartbreaking hour of television.
“But what I love about this show is that it shows the part of what it is to consciously choose joy,” Porter says.
He works himself up explaining why remembering the joy is important, but also remembering the truth is, too. We need to know the history so we can learn from it.
“We’re telling [this story] now because we’re trying to show people that we were already fucking here, five and a half minutes ago!” he says. “It’s really inspiring to be in this artistic space and really remind the world that it’s always the artists. It’s always through art that the largest change happens, which is why the fuck they always come after us first. Because when you are an artist, you’re cracked open to be a free thinker. Free thinkers are not followers. That flies right in the face of this kind of dictatorship.”
It’s the rare show where every creative decision made is done while knowing that its impact matters. That it will resonate and reverberate, because it’s being made with characters being seen for the first time, acted out by performers getting opportunities for the first time, for an audience that is learning and having their eyes opened for the first time, too.
“I feel like this show, of everything I have done in my career, is the thing that has done the most good in the world by telling these stories,” Murphy says.
Porter, a Broadway veteran who struggled for years to be taken seriously by an industry that dismissed him because of his flamboyance and his race, launches into a monologue so powerful you’d have thought it was scripted into the show.
“I spent so much time trying to, like, just get on TV,” he says. “When I think how long it has taken me to get to this place and how I have felt so marginalized by the film and television industry and so dismissed by the industry until now, it had to be this. I had to wait for this.”
“I never had to be on some random procedural drama,” he continues, “And no shade! That’s a lot of money and a lot of visibility. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying I thought that’s what I had to prepare myself for, when in fact it was choosing my authenticity over my fame. My authenticity over what I thought I should have based on my talent and my work ethic. It blows my mind that it’s this.”
And with that he readjusts his blue and red jacket, one of the most fabulous blazers I have ever seen. A high-fashion whoopee cap, as if lifted out of Jughead’s closet, rests on his head. He’s being called in for another take.
Slipping into Pray Tell’s cadence, he delivers his speech to the crowd. “It’s time we switch it up,” he says, as they applaud in approval. “It’s time we keep them guessing.”