Every year I write about my favorite movies and television shows. In 2018, my number one show of the year was Pose.
This shocked even me since the very idea of giving Ryan Murphy flowers for anything might be the only sin I consider unforgivable. And yet, it was hard to deny the groundbreaking nature of a drama featuring trans actors playing trans characters and the balance it struck portraying a harrowing moment in LGBTQ history while still finding opportunities for its characters to experience love, joy, and family.
Was it the best written show on television?
Far from it.
Murphy has a lot of great ideas and rarely manages to execute them. What he does understand is color scheme, music selection, and evoking emotion. While that doesn't get you very far if you're trying to tell a horror story over the course of ten episodes with seemingly no forethought, you're going to run into trouble. But with history as a map, Murphy can sometimes pull off a miracle. He did it with American Crime Story and while I would say he did it with Pose, the last season saw him and the creative staff of the show send it spiraling into an identity crisis, abysmal dialogue, and emotional manipulation.
However much the actors on Pose were paid for this season--it wasn't enough. MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Angel Bismark Curiel, Dominique Jackson, and many of the show's other stars were forced to work through what felt like a slipshod, unfocused jumble of AIDS history, the crack epidemic, and awards bait. Whereas the first season had its issues (We did not need Evan Peters and Kate Mara and they were not missed), the second season was a vast improvement, featuring standout episodes like Candy's funeral (Angelica Ross was robbed of an Emmy nomination) and "Life's a Beach."
At the time, the tightening up was credited in the press to Our Lady J and Janet Mock, which seemed to make all the sense in the world. If a show suddenly had a clear narrative path and empathy, chances are, Murphy was not being very hands-on. When it was announced that the third season would be the show's last, it seemed so cruel considering the second season felt like a breakthrough for a show that was already shattering every ceiling in sight. There were interviews where Mock talked about having a four- or five-year plan for the show, knowing how radical it would be to follow these characters as far as possible.
Still, if Season Three had managed to match the quality of Season Two, it felt like this monumental achievement could go out on a high note.
Then...We heard about the premiere party.
I won't go too deep into it, because you can Google "Janet Mock" and "Pose" and I'm sure it will, unfortunately, be the first thing that pops up. Suffice it to say, there was reason to be concerned that the drama behind-the-scenes might overshadow the final season, but all shows have craziness happening that none of us know about, and oftentimes the artists involved manage to keep it from affecting the art.
I can't say if what went wrong here was the result of what was detailed at the premiere party (I will say that I'm shocked we didn't have a bigger conversation at the time about someone admitting that they were sleeping with someone who works on the show while also dating another recurring actor on the show and then proceeded to go into details about that in front of the entire cast and crew since that seems...um, I mean, we underplay it and just say unprofessional). What I can say is that the entire season felt both endless and rushed.
The show's producers and writers seemed unsure if they wanted the fate of their characters to be based in reality or give them all happy endings and subvert logic in the process. So they went with a little of Column A and a little of Column B. People had addictions that came and went in the span of a single episode. One character made all her money off the mob (too much money, even the goodfellas in Goodfellas couldn't afford a Manhattan penthouse) and...nothing seemed to happen. The plotline just trailed off into the ether. This is the kind of narrative laziness I would expect from a 1960's sitcom, but you are not allowed to serve up this kind of chaos on a network known for prestige tv and plot-driven excellence.
Unless you're Ryan Murphy. Then somebody remembers how much money you make on Coven t-shirts alone every Pride season and nobody says a word.
I knew we were in for it when it became clear that the approach to finishing up the series was going to involve dedicating entire episodes to one or two characters, and then picking a new character to spotlight in the next episode. That might be the kind of thing you do in the middle of a series to deepen an audience's understanding of a character, but by your final season, you should be able to go back-and-forth between storylines so that you're building a momentum to the final episode where each gets their own resolution--whatever that looks like.
Instead, the final episode was noticeably lacking in terms of anything for characters like Angel and Lil Papi to do, most likely because they had already gotten their ending in an earlier episode, leaving them virtually pointless in the finale, only there to react to the conclusions of other characters.
Which brings us to Billy Porter.
Billy Porter is an otherworldly talent. That is not up for debate.
That doesn't change the fact that he, the show, and the audience fell victim to what I will call Ed Helms syndrome.
When Ed Helms appeared on The Office, he was there to be a supporting character, and he was great at it. He was a secondary player and he excelled in that role.
Then, The Hangover came out, and the producers decided (and sort of logically, I'll admit) that if you suddenly find yourself with a movie star on your television show, you should give them as much to do as possible. The problem is, that compromised his character. He had to be radically transformed in order to justify all this extra stuff to do, and it changed the show for the worse. I know some of you disagree with me on that, and--yeah, I don't care.
Now we get to Pose. Billy Porter was essential part of the series, but the series was meant to be about Blanca and the family she forms. Porter was something of a Greek chorus, and he was brilliant at it.
Then he becomes famous for the strangest thing a multi-talent can become famous for--
Serving great looks on the red carpet.
Okay, fine, listen, Billy Porter deserves to be famous, and it took way too long, so I guess if that's what gets him there, good for him and good for all of us, but please, I beg you, go listen to At the Corner of Broadway and Soul and understand that offering up a great Met Gala appearance is the LEAST of his powers.
That aside, the show now had a superstar on its hands, and they decided to run with it. Suddenly, Porter's Pray Tell character had way more of a presence on the show, sometimes eclipsing Blanca in terms of docked minutes in an episode. In fact, whole episodes became devoted to Pray, and when Porter won the Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Drama, all of that seemed warranted, despite the fact that a cis-man was being recognized while his trans colleagues were denied the same acclaim.
But I would argue that pivoting the show so that it became the story of Blanca and Pray was a mistake. There are people who could have figured out how to include more of Pray's story and continue to center the piece on the characters it was created for, but those people were not in charge, and so instead, they put Porter through the ringer in the hopes of securing him a second Emmy, and in doing so, made some of the most outlandish, offensive, and pedestrian artistic choices I've ever seen. Everything from confronting his religious mother to a final scene in front of a mirror that has now been borrowed and reused so many times, finding its origin would be easier than hunting down every relative of Genghis Khan.
Like the other actors on the show, Porter deserved better, and in this instance, better involved either less of a presence on Pose or maybe even a spin-off where Pray's story could have been given more room to expand and prosper.
But even then, it would have needed better writers.
I truly hope we get to see everyone involved in this show in other project, particularly Rodriguez, who has turned in a performance over three seasons that has been both an anchor and a revelation. If we're going to send flowers, we should start sending them to her and to the other artists who elevated this past season of nonsense into a handful of moments that were profound.
The hope is that there will be another chance to tell a story like this one, and that next time, the storytellers won't have as much to overcome.