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“We Didn’t Want It to Feel Like a History Lesson”: Talking to Cocreator Steven Canals About ‘Pose’

The groundbreaking new FX show—created with Ryan Murphy—revisits the New York City ballroom scene of the late 1980s

FX/Ringer illustration

Pose can get a little cheesy sometimes. This isn’t entirely a criticism of the new FX series, an ensemble drama following several participants in the New York City ballroom scene during the late 1980s. Every show has its excesses, particularly in its early days, when writers and directors are still calibrating the tone. Rather, the brushes with sentimentality are what make Pose stand out—as a prestige cable series; as an entry in the oeuvre of cocreator Ryan Murphy, TV’s reigning camp maximalist; as a story about a vulnerable population weathering the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“It was a tricky balance to tell those narratives in a way where the story would still be aspirational and hopeful,” admits cocreator Steven Canals—“aspirational” and “hopeful” being two unusual buzzwords for a story centered on marginalized people living in poverty. An Afro Latino Bronx native and former college administrator, Canals originally shopped the pilot script for Pose in 2014. While some character details have been tweaked, “the themes of that original pilot are exactly the same” as the final version, Canals says. “The show was about family, about acceptance and authenticity, about survival.”

Around the same time, Murphy had optioned the rights to Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary exploring the ballroom circuit through the gay men and trans women, almost entirely nonwhite, who served as its competitors and judges. (Paris Is Burning is available to stream on Netflix.) “When I was out pitching the show originally, most execs and networks weren’t interested in it,” Canals recalls. “I think it was seen as too niche.” Then Murphy heard about Canals’s parallel project and proposed they merge the two concepts.

A super-producer like Murphy, a prolific and influential force in contemporary TV with the nine-figure Netflix deal to prove it, can help get a show on the fast track. But there were other factors working in Pose’s favor. The past five years have seen a boom in LGBTQ representation on television: scripted shows from Orange Is the New Black to Transparent to Looking to The Fosters to Murphy’s own shows; on the unscripted side, RuPaul’s Drag Race has exploded into a cottage industry unto itself, popularizing ball-culture terminology like “shade,” “fish,” and “realness”—words that punctuate Pose’s scripts with assumed familiarity—among a mass audience. In the time it took to make Pose a reality, the world has become more receptive to a show like Pose.

“In many ways, Pose is standing on the shoulders of [those] shows,” Canals acknowledges. Pose nonetheless marks an escalation: The show sets a record for the highest number of transgender performers in series-regular roles in television history, including MJ Rodriguez as Blanca, whose HIV diagnosis prompts her to start her own “house” of adopted protegées, and Dominique Jackson as Elektra, Blanca’s imperious erstwhile mother. “Despite the fact that we definitely have more LGBTQ content now than we did even five years ago, at the end of the day I would say we’re still lacking in representation,” Canals says. “More often than not, there’s only ever enough for one gay character, or one trans character. Here, you have five [trans] characters who are all uniquely different and have their own journeys, their own arcs. It’s not lost on me, though, that we’ve had to go through several painstaking years of progress to get to the point where we can now have and celebrate five very different trans women on one show.”

Pose is striking in how self-contained its world is. To the extent the show has an antagonist—beside the white, straight, cisgender power structure that refuses to acknowledge trans people or the AIDS epidemic—it’s Elektra, whose dominant House of Abundance develops a rivalry with Blanca’s upstart House of Evangelista. (In ball culture, members of houses, groups composed of the adopted “children” of self-styled “mothers,” compete against each other by walking in categories like “luscious femme queen” and “royalty.”) But Elektra, who leads a pampered existence at the largesse of a sugar daddy (Christopher Meloni, cast straight from the internet’s fantasies), gets pathos of her own. Even when she’s acting as the de facto villain, the issues at hand are ones within the trans community: the privilege of passing as a cis woman (Elektra) versus the reality of not being able to (Blanca); accepting one’s second-class status in life outside the ballroom (Elektra) versus fighting to make it just as safe (Blanca).

Pose isn’t ignorant of the ways the straight world’s mores infiltrate even the most accepting of spaces: many ball prizes, like “executive realness,” judge contestants by their ability to conform to outsiders’ standards. It does, however, present those standards from the point of view of the people subject to them. “We were hyperaware that a large part of the audience probably hadn’t ever encountered ballroom communities,” Canals says. “There was going to be some explanation we would have to do around the mores and the nuances of the community. But we had to work really hard to make sure it wasn’t didactic. We certainly didn’t want to thump our audiences over the head. We didn’t want it to feel like a history lesson.”

The show is at its weakest when it gives into that feeling, despite its intentions. “A house is a family you choose,” Blanca lays out for Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young, gay dancer from Pennsylvania who declares his desire to “get out of this town and be somebody.” Such clichés ironically preach the gospel of difference through rhetoric that’s bland and universalizing. Later, Elektra asks Blanca why she insists on picking fights she can’t win. “Because those are the ones worth fighting!” she responds, a line straight out of any number of anodyne social-issues dramas. Conversely, Pose is at its best when it stops telling you why the ball circuit is special and starts simply showing it. The competition scenes, which Pose wisely includes several of in every episode, are literally ecstatic—quasi-religious gatherings filled with joy and communion, complete with a priest of sorts in presiding MC Pray Tell (Billy Porter). A speech where Elektra explains why she wants gender confirmation surgery is fine, but a subsequent scene where she wordlessly, tearfully tucks herself while gazing into a mirror is extraordinary, allowing Jackson’s talent to shine through.

Pose does have a handful of white, cisgender characters. Thanks to the unequal distribution of opportunities in Hollywood, they’re played by the cast’s most well-established actors: Murphy favorite Evan Peters plays Stan, a straitlaced corporate type who strikes up an affair with an Evangelista child named Angel (Indya Moore); Kate Mara portrays his wife and James Van Der Beek his Gordon Gekko–like boss, at—where else?—a Trump Organization in its prime. (At one point, the season included Trump himself as a character, though he was swapped out for a footsoldier once Murphy realized viewers wouldn’t want to see any more of him.) “We don’t want to shy away from the reality of what was happening politically and sociopolitically in New York City in the 1980s,” Canals says. Still, these players’ position in Pose’s narrative hierarchy is clear. Stan doesn’t appear until past the half-hour mark of Pose’s 80-minute pilot, and Pose adopts Angel’s curiosity about his lifestyle as much as his voyeuristic, possibly fetishistic view of hers. “More often than not, I think trans characters are often embedded in stories to help the cisgendered or straight male character come to terms with their own identity and have some teachable moment, a revelation,” Canals points out. “That isn’t really the case here on Pose, you know?”

Pose gets better and picks up steam once the show, having sufficiently explained itself, can turn its efforts toward building out the characters. (I’ve seen four episodes, half of its eight-episode first season.) Moore, in particular, stands out as a woman in the fraught position of negotiating a relationship that’s transactional as well as emotional. Midseason, an amusingly lighthearted subplot pairs her with Angelica Ross, costar of the excellent web series Her Story, who makes maximum use out of a relatively small amount of screen time. Canals gives credit to legendary casting director Alexa Fogel, known for her work on The Wire, Atlanta, and True Detective, as well as the performers themselves. “The casting process, it was so emotional,” he recounts. “I think that, for a lot of these women, there hadn’t been a lot of opportunities, and certainly not opportunities to play characters whose journeys were parallel to their own.”

Behind the camera, Pose marks another entry in Murphy’s latest evolution, from a hands-on showrunner with an unmistakable signature into a producer who dabbles in different genres and tones. Murphy built his name on series that were typically queer in style rather than substance, from the Watersesque archness of Popular and Glee to the aging divas at the center of American Horror Story’s first seasons. Like the latest season of American Crime Story, Pose inverts that dynamic, telling a story about almost exclusively gay and trans protagonists without the irony or excess that marked Murphy’s earlier work. Both shows also see Murphy hand over the majority of writing and directing duties to collaborators. To that end, the Pose writers’ room included author and activist Janet Mock and Transparent alumna Our Lady J alongside Canals, Murphy, and Murphy’s longtime creative partner Brad Falchuk.

“What was lovely about having Our Lady J and Janet in the room is, I think they really pushed Ryan, Brad, and I—three cisgendered men—to really think beyond the binary,” Canals says. Mock, who is black, and Our Lady J, who is white, brought radically different experiences of trans identity to the conversation. “I think it’s important to remember that the trans community isn’t a monolith. Everyone’s experiences are so, so uniquely different. How do we create narratives for all our characters on the show that also feel uniquely different?” Pose is still navigating the line between rejoicing in that difference and highlighting common ground with an audience assumed to be largely cis and straight. It’s a show that can stand to take its own advice: Blending in is boring, and leaning into one’s uniqueness is the surest way to transcend.