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Pose - Acting Up - Review

Last night, the best series on television made its triumphant return. The award-winning drama continues to soar through its timely yet endearing portrayal of black and brown queer folks in the New York City ballroom scene. If the premiere indicated anything it’s that Pose intends to be stronger and more focused than before. Jumping two years after the S1 finale, the episode opens on a rather bleak note with Blanca and Pray Tell visiting Hart’s Island, a burial ground for those who weren’t claimed by loved ones. In this case, the countless lives that succumbed to AIDS including Pray’s boyfriend Keenan. Such a dark welcoming establishes the narrative focus of the season, to explore the damaging ramifications of the AIDS crisis within the LGBT community. Mere moments later, viewers learn that our beloved Blanca’s HIV diagnosis evolved to AIDS. The emotionally heavy overtones throughout the premiere exacerbates the characters’ inclination for survival as they find themselves in a world adamant on their erasure.

Amidst devastating blows, ballroom finds itself at a crossroads as Madonna’s iconic single Vogue breaks through the media circuit. The writers’ decision to incorporate the singer’s presence adds enriching conversation related to mainstream consumerism and cultural appropriation. Hopeful Blanca perceives the song as an opportunity to be actualized through the wider gauge of society, while others (particularly Pray Tell and Candy) reflect upon the matter through a pessimistic lens. What I appreciated the most from such discourse was the fact that both perspectives had merit. Black individuals aren’t afforded the luxury of hope in many cases given the colossal disappointments we face in greater contexts related to our identities. People like Pray Tell work even harder to protect themselves from disappointment given what they’ve endured in the past, which is completely valid. Meanwhile, people like Blanca cling to potential as it gives them the strength to persist through difficult circumstances. It’s unfortunate knowing what ultimately came from the phenomenon. The fact that the cis-gendered white admirers elevated themselves to new creative heights, while the community struggled to garner recognition beyond their safe space. It speaks to the entitlement that many privileged folk have to dabble in a culturally specific art form at their leisure, while the curators of said talent rely on the expression to sustain themselves through global and personal hardship. Pose’s intentional efforts to display such messages on screen reminds us of how important it is to make our lived experiences known as racialized and sexualized minorities.

As a means of projecting such optimism, Blanca encourages her children to pursue new opportunities that’ll enrich their livelihood. With Damon, to teach vogue classes at the YMCA. For Angel, to pursue a modelling contest. Something that was rather surprising with the former was his reduced presence within the premiere. Beyond acknowledging Ricky’s whereabouts, Damon was placed on the sidelines – making me eager to see what’ll come of his storyline later. The latter, however, (along with Lil Papi) had ample moments in the spotlight. In a tasteful homage to Octavia St. Laurent from Paris is Burning, we find Angel navigating the modelling world. One of the most devastating scenes in the episode involved Angel being forced to disclose her trans identity as a means of sustaining images for the contest. It was a heartbreaking watch as the scene confronted the grueling reality that many trans women face at the hands of cis-gendered men. What drove the story home for me, however, was Blanca and Papi’s determination to protect Angel from such scrutiny. It underpins one of the most defining themes from the show, which is to honor the family you choose. That conveys the power that Pose has to elevate its characters.

A noticeable absence within the narrative fold are the white heterosexual characters affiliated with the Trump Organization. It seems like the writers made the appropriate decision to phase them out so the focus could lie on the queer stories, which was the best move to make. In comparison to the ballroom world, Stan’s social climbing arc was the least compelling story to watch beyond his connection with Angel. I’m glad the writers made the choice to move on because it allows them to focus on relevant characters. Speaking of, Sandra Bernhard’s role as Judy managed to break through the cracks by elevating her to a series regular, which was a great move. Between her playfully amusing banter with Pray Tell and the support she extends to Blanca, Judy is a welcomed presence to the show. Her character also serves as a bridge towards AIDS activism, which was a focal point for the premiere as Pray found himself captivated by ACT UP combating the stigma surrounding the virus. This storyline culminated in the biggest climax of the premiere with Pray Tell and Elektra engaging in a verbal spat. Having failed to participate in the protest with other House of Evangelista members, Pray berates her on the runway prompting Elektra to align herself with the House of Ferocity.

Elektra’s return to form brings mixed feelings. On the one hand, I live for Dominique’s savory delivery. She presents Elektra with such a crafted, energized flare that makes her antagonizing ways so enthralling to watch. Her demeanor alone is just delicious. On the other hand, presenting Elektra as a foil yet again instills regression with her character. Having lived with Blanca for over two years, one would think that she would be more humble given everything that transpired last season. It also takes away from the dynamic Elektra built with Blanca as I was interested in seeing them collaborate as allies rather than rivals. While joining the House of Ferocity makes for an entertaining watch, it’s almost ludicrous given the way she denounced Lulu and Candy in the finale.

Another disappointment I had with the episode was Keenan’s abrupt passing. I was eager to see a mature black gay romance that wasn’t ridden in shame surrounding their sexuality and sexual health. It’s sad that viewers only had one episode to truly revel in the magic surrounding their chemistry. While I understand the significance surrounding Pray Tell’s activist journey, I wish his romance was a part of that story as well. That being said, I was moved by the season premiere. As a black gay man, it feels so enriching to watch characters that look like me move so gracefully before my eyes. One of the main reasons I find myself drawn to this program is the fact that it is built on authenticity. The team behind Pose are taking it upon themselves to instill viewers with the knowledge pertaining to the struggles of that time so many of us could feel empowered today. For that I’m truly grateful. 

Choice Scene (s): Candy and Lulu kiking at the funeral, Lil Papi and Blanca confronting Angel's photographer, & Elektra's Marie Antoinette impersonation at the ball.
Choice Quote: “I’m joining your house. You’re welcome, bitches.”
Choice Music Moment (s): Pump Up The Jam by Technotronic & Back to Life by Soul II Soul
Grade: A

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