Back in May, when I visited the set of Pose, someone asked co-creator Steven Canals if he knew that the show was saving lives. Canals went speechless for a good three minutes, fighting back tears. When he finally spoke, he told us about the people who've reached out to him since the first season of Pose — the first series to place queer black and Latino people at the center of the story, and the first to employ a record number of transgender people in front of and behind the camera — arrived on FX.
He said that LGTBQ centers, home to adolescents who'd been kicked out of their homes, arranged viewing parties for their kids. Another person in her 60s told Canals they watched it in the hospital fighting cancer, and that Pose gave them the courage to finally come out as trans. So yes, Steven Canals knows Pose functions on a level beyond an ordinary drama. And when he, along with Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, Our Lady J, and Brad Falchuk, started crafting its second season, they did so knowing how vital their work had become — especially now, when black and brown trans women are being murdered at levels that constitute a legitimate societal crisis.
I mention all this because there are points early on in the second season of Pose when you feel its weight and responsibility informing the story. Season 2 begins in 1990, three years after Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) started her own successful house, Elektra (Dominique Jackson) moved in with her, and Angel (Indya Moore) quietly resolved to quit sex work, a profession familiar to trans women who are denied employment doing much else.
Things start out grim. AIDS continues moving through the city like some apocalyptic plague, killing more of Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca's friends than they can count. AIDS dominates a significant portion of the first four episodes sent to critics, as Pray Tell and Blanca — who both learned they're HIV positive in Season 1 — stare at their own mortality and take action. For Blanca, this means becoming even more determined to protect her children and leave a legacy, albeit in ways that, in the first episode or so, get grandiose. At times, some of the dialogue affirming her choices to live and dream and hope feels like she's giving speeches pointed directly at the audience. Anywhere else, this might seem strained, but for Pose it's vital.
Pose knows it can't escape its responsibility; it now even ends episodes with quotes from queer icons on screen at the end of each episode. Pose knows it doesn't have the luxury of only showing reading, throwing shade and voguing, because the people who appreciate it the most need to hear its characters fighting for their lives and respect in explicitly clear language that leaves no room for ambiguity.
And though AIDS activism may not be as urgent to LGBTQ youth of today — who know that PrEP and HIV treatment options exist (as long as you can afford it) — that's exactly why Pose's depiction of the burgeoning ACT UP movement is smart and relevant: it shows the LGBTQ community using its power to force change and remind people how much the previous generation lost, sacrificed and fought for freedoms available now. Sandra Bernhard, perfectly cast as Nurse Judy, completely earns her upgrade to series regular as she urges Pray Tell to join the AIDS fight, throwing shade and love bombs with Billy Porter in meaty scenes. As rich as all this is, it's just one mirror in the ginormous, captivating disco ball Pose spins its second go-round; as all the stories get deeper, richer, and more satisfying than before. Even the soundtrack is more lit.
Of course, one song is more important than the rest. Madonna's "Vogue," and the implications of cultural appropriation, gives the season another narrative spine as everyone figures out how to maximize the sudden attention on the ballroom world. Angel (Indya Moore) becomes aware of a major opportunity, and starts a romance so pure and tender it will instantly become a fan favorite 'ship. Elektra embarks on a new profession and then runs into some drama in-the-know viewers will recognize as borrowed from someone in Paris is Burning; as she did last season, Elektra keeps getting larger-than-life in unforgettable scenes that paint her as shallow, hilarious, vulnerable and iconic all at once. Blanca starts a business, putting her at odds with a Leona Helmsley-type character (played by Patti LuPone) who brings even more razzle-dazzle to the season. Benevolent forces in heaven also saw fit to give Lulu and Candy Ferocity (Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross, respectively) more presence this season and in one episode, they have a heartbreaking, beautifully rendered story that slips into magical surrealism without one ounce of storytelling integrity compromised.
Without giving too much away, that story also reaffirms the point I made at the outset: Pose has important work to do, and it knows it. In rare instances, the weight of the work shows but even then, it's a load you're happy to bear. With its return, Pose is even more lovable than it was before earning an affinity that makes it feel like a cherished friend you party with, laugh with, cry with, listen to when they ramble, fight with and hug 10 minutes later. Pose knows it has to have its viewers back, and it makes sure they know it too.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Pose Season 2 premieres Tuesday, June 11 at 10/9c on FX.