Some shows take a while to find their way, but the same can be said of viewers. That old “Outer Limits” line, about not adjusting one’s TV set if what you’re seeing is unfamiliar, can just as well apply to the viewer’s mind-set, which often needs adjusting or even a slap on the top to properly receive the signal. Sometimes, to get what a good TV drama is telling you, you have to stop wishing it was something else.
That’s one way of saying that I’m glad FX’s “Pose” returns Tuesday night with a resolute confidence in both its big glimmer and its basic grit. It hasn’t gone out and gotten a major makeover for Season 2, but it has applied some necessary tweaks.
I admit that I approached “Pose” last year feeling protective of history (particularly as it applies to the AIDS era) and a wariness about seeing it revamped, revised or unnecessarily glammed up for 21st-century approval. I was also thrown at first by “Pose’s” blunt, almost regressive style of storytelling, which favored sudsy melodrama and sprinklings of anachronistic dialogue with words and phrases from today.
Ryan Murphy (who created “Pose” with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals) very seriously stocked the show with transgender writers, producers and actors — partly to prove to the industry that it can be done but also to ensure quality in shipping and handling. In a New Yorker interview, he essentially forbade anyone to call the show “campy,” challenging viewers to look past a lot of fabulosity and see something deeper instead. To our credit, I think we have.
And now that both show and audience have found a common groove, it’s safe to say that “Pose” excels as a fun piece of corrective history, taking place in a quasi-accurate, reimagined New York at a certain, less-gentrified time (this season picks up in the spring of 1990). It focuses on transgender and minority rights amid a gay rights (and AIDS activism) movement that often marginalized its nonwhite, nonyuppie nonconformists. So much is left out of the stories about that period that it makes sense to go back and fill in with whatever’s available — memory, fact, imagination, desire.
“Pose,” which has won a Peabody Award for its illuminative effort, is also a skilled practitioner of wish-fulfillment. Here, the transgender women and gay men who devote themselves to the uptown “ballroom” scene are given a dimension and depth beyond what gay historians (to say nothing of cultural history in general) usually bestowed. They’re also given a candy-colored acknowledgment of their superpowers, in which they get to loudly declare their identities or eloquently connect the dots between ACT UP die-ins at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the riotous and homophobic bonfire of disco records a decade earlier at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. One character even gets to rise from the dead long enough to both forgive and hector her frenemies, rivals and even her remorseful parents.
The show reunites us with Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), the mother of House Evangelista, the ruling troupe of performers who take all the trophies on the ballroom scene, a subculture of competitive “realness,” where transgender black and Latina women preen before a panel of excruciatingly honest judges, emceed by the ferociously catty Pray Tell (Billy Porter, the show’s standout). As they strike their poses and give good face, the radio and MTV answer ominously with Madonna’s big smash, “Vogue,” which has both an energizing and unnerving effect on their previously private realm.
Dedicated to magnifying its easiest metaphors, “Pose” chooses a parallel between “Vogue” fever and the AIDS plague — the first hinting at a profound change ahead for ballroom culture (in one scene, Pray Tell and his ruling council furiously debate adding lip-syncing to their competitions, which Pray finds distastefully camp) and the second presenting itself in a steady stream of funerals for friends (Pray and his nurse and HIV counselor, Judy, played with full-circle wit and wisdom by Sandra Bernhard, keep track of how many hundreds of funerals they’ve attended so far).
To that, there is also the death of the city to consider — the old, shabby, affordable New York being divvied and jacked up by rapacious owners, with Patti LuPone guest-starring as a racist, transphobic slumlord, in the key of Leona Helmsley.
All is not gloom, however. “Pose” clearly prefers being a TV show over being a documentary, and it has many moves in its act, including dark comedy caper. I’d love to spill what happens when Elektra Abundance Evangelista (Dominique Jackson) finds lucrative work as a sex-club dominatrix, but fans ought to experience that mix of pleasure and pain in their own way.
Pose (90 minutes) returns Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX. An earlier version of this review incorrectly referenced a line from “The Outer Limits,” attributing it to “The Twilight Zone.” The review has been updated to correct the error.