In its second season, 'Pose' delves deeper into the dangers facing its LGBTQ characters, while striving to maintain a mix of gleeful spectacle and uplifting family drama.
“Everything is about to change. I can see it clear as day!” It’s always a little concerning when a TV character — in this case, Pose’s fierce and loving house mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) — kicks off a new season with such a bold declaration. Nothing good can come from such optimism; much like the horror genre’s ominous “I’ll be right back,” it only serves as an obvious signal of the danger to come.
In its second season, Pose delves deeper into the dangers facing its LGBTQ characters — the rampant spread of AIDS, violence against trans women — while striving to maintain the mix of gleeful spectacle and uplifting family drama it established so well last year. It’s a tricky balance, and there are a few times in the first four episodes where the show veers perilously close to pedantic. But overall, Pose still sparks one emotion more than any other, and that’s joy.
It’s 1990, and Madonna’s “Vogue” is dominating the charts and all of Blanca’s hopes for the future. With the biggest pop star in the world celebrating a dance style created on the ball scene, mainstream acceptance for her community must be next, right? “Put your glass slippers away, Transarella! It ain’t never gonna happen,” quips Pray Tell (Billy Porter). As always, there’s a dark truth to this sassy one-liner: The AIDS epidemic is decimating New York’s queer community, and when they’re not in the ballroom, Blanca and company are attending funerals. (The season opens with Blanca and Pray taking a ferry to New York’s Hart Island to pay respects to a friend who was laid to rest in a pine box in a potter’s field.) Last season, both Pray and Blanca were diagnosed as HIV-positive, but this year Pose puts its characters to work as activists: The premiere features a dramatization of ACT UP’s famous “Stop the Church” die-in at New York’s tony St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
At times the writing in these scenes can feel a little stilted (“Pray, you have got to put your pain to good use, or I swear to God it will eat you alive!” warns Sandra Bernhard’s Judy), but Pose is nothing if not self-aware. When Pray interrupts House Abundance’s jaw-dropping Marie Antoinette-themed performance (complete with a working guillotine!) to scold Elektra (played by diva extraordinaire Dominique Jackson) for not attending the protest, she is quick to bark, “Get off your soapbox and ask the judges for their scores!”
For every dollop of edutainment, Pose dishes out a full serving of theatrics, humor, and heartfelt family drama. Elektra begins a fierce new side career that is absolutely hilarious when it’s not horrifying, while Angel (Indya Moore) gets a taste of mainstream adulation when she enters a modeling competition run by Eileen Ford (Trudie Styler). And Lord, if Broadway legend Patti LuPone isn’t having the operatic time of her life as Frederica Norman, a wealthy Upper East Side battle ax who owns a storefront Blanca hopes to rent. (When Frederica announced that her two dogs were named “Cash” and “Credit,” I was the one who howled.)
There are tears every episode, too, but not in a rote, manipulative This is Us way. As outlandish as Pose’s characters can be, they are all lit from within by a deep and relatable love for each other. After another soul-shaking loss, Pray asks Blanca if she ever feels scared. “Sometimes,” she replies. “But I got my friends to lift me up.” In 2019, we all could use more shows that do the same. B+