The Category Is…Bold!
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Ryan Murphy’s work. While he is definitely a genius, he has a tendency to go so far towards overkill that its often hard to focus on anything else. I’ve never been able to buy in to American Horror Story and the lion’s share of his work for Netflix, most notably Ratched, has always made me wonder why they got made at all. But when he tries to tell — pardon the expression — straight narratives, his work is exceptional. 9–1–1 may be disaster porn, but character-wise, he goes out of his way to just let his actors do their thing. And both his incarnations of American Crime Story — the first about O.J. Simpson; the next about Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan — used some of the most notorious crimes of the 1990s to tell larger stories about race, sexual orientation and celebrity. (I await the third incarnation on the Clinton impeachment with bated breath.)
But arguably his most brilliant and consistent narrative has been Pose, the story of the African American LGBTQ community in late 1980-early nineties New York City. Cast entirely with African American gay and transgender actors, it tells a story that is pure period and entirely universal. I’ve had to wait nearly two years for the third season, and I was suddenly deeply to learn that Murphy intends for it to be the final one. If the last year has taught us nothing else (and for a lot of people, it probably didn’t) it’s that we need stories like these being told as much and as loudly as possible. Murphy has always insisted that he was only going to tell a three season story (odd, considering how frequently he tends to overextend the lion’s share of his series), but if this in the final act, there’s no question we need it.
It’s 1994. Rudy Giuliani is mayor and his war on crime is tearing apart every aspect of the way so many of our favorite characters have lived. In the opening minute, the Hellfire Club, which was Elektra’s (the incredible Dominque Jackson) home base, for better (and in one mesmerizing instant, for much worse) has been shut down by the cops. The AIDS epidemic continues to rage, and its getting harder and harder for so many of the community to attend the funerals of the lost. Even the ballrooms, which were sanctuary for everybody, have become harsher places to deal with. New houses that care nothing for tradition, only for money are walking the ballrooms at night. And they don’t like it when they are stiffed.
This is taking a toll on everybody, especially Pray Tell (Billy Porter stakes his claim to one last Emmy). Unable to deal with the death and the change in time, he is now barely able to function without a flask in his hand. The funerals are driving him mad and he can’t keep up with the new breed. In the opening episode, he resigns from the balls. Even his adopted family is having a hard time tolerating him these days, and the one really good thing that came out of last season — his relationship with Damon is faltering badly. (I’m only reviewing the season premiere; I’m well aware of what happened in second episode).
Everyone else is trying to find a way through the darkness. Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) has finally settled down with a good man who loves her and who accepts everything about her. During the harshness of everything, she seems to have found a calling as a candy striper and in the final moments of the season premiere applies for nursing school. Others aren’t as fortunate. Angel’s once promising career as a model is faltering, and her roommate seems more than willing to push her back towards her old habits.
And history continues to unfold. Much of the Season Premiere focuses on the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the notorious car chase in LA. For any other series, this could be the most blatant of callbacks — Murphy did write, after all, The People V. O.J. Simpson. But Pose takes at a look at it from a completely different way, as much of the family has an ‘O.J. Watch Party.” There’s some comedy (Angel doesn’t know who O.J is and Elektra is horrifying that something is happening to this ‘innocent man!” But there’s a deeper subtext. Everyone seems certain that Simpson’s going to get killed at the end of the chase. Blanca is angry because he’s clearly a killer. And Pray Tell, sodden with drink, still has the clearest perspective. To him, O.J. is practically white because of his celebrity and everything will be fine for him. This is a point of view that Murphy never was willing to take even in his entire series and its brilliant to watch.
I know that I am the wrong race or sexual orientation to be the target demographic for Pose. But as someone who has been an outsider more than his share of the time, I can feel empathy for all of the characters in this series. And even if I couldn’t, the acting is so incredible, and the writing so angry and harsh that it’s the kind of series you can’t look away from, no matter how much you might want too. I am sad that Pose is ending, but I’m glad that Murphy is ending it the same way that so many of the House of Evangelista would want it too — on their own terms. This series deserves to dominate the Emmy nominations the same way the performers dominated the runways.
My score: 4.75 stars.