Television

In Its First Season, Pose Revealed That It’s the Queer Full House

The wholesome FX series is queering the family drama.

The characters engage in a group hug.
Billy Porter as Pray Tell, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Dyllón Burnside as Ricky, and Indya Moore as Angel hug in Season 1, Episode 5 of Pose.
JoJo Whilden/FX. Copyright 2018, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

This article contains spoilers for the first season of Pose.

As I watched the season finale of Pose, I couldn’t stop thinking about Full House. Like the FX drama, the onetime TGIF staple began in 1987, followed an unconventional family geared toward raising kindhearted (if slightly dull) children, and took place in a fantasy version of its urban setting where nothing truly lethal was allowed to happen to any of its core characters. (As you may recall, Full House focused on three adult men—widowed father Danny Tanner; his best friend, Joey Gladstone; and his brother-in-law Jesse Katsopolis—who decide to raise Danny’s three daughters with one another. Pose follows another, queerer kind of chosen family, with the maternal protagonist bringing together a group of LGBTQ waifs under one roof.) Make no mistake: Pose is revolutionary in ways that Full House never was, with trans women of color leading the cast and trans people both in the writers’ room and behind the camera. But Pose also deserves to be celebrated for its most traditional element, its deep respect for (all kinds of) family, which offers viewers, but particularly queer people of color, one of modern life’s great comfort foods: the wholesome family show.

Family sitcoms have long been instrumental in normalizing the struggles and ambitions of various underrepresented groups. The tradition goes back decades, at least to the 1950s, when I Love Lucy was built around an interracial couple. In the ’70s and ’80s, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and The Cosby Show allowed black viewers to find versions of themselves—and/or their dreams—on screen, while the original One Day at a Time showed a family headed by a single, divorced mother. Meanwhile, comedies like The Honeymooners (in the ’50s) and Roseanne (in the ’80s and ’90s) encouraged greater candor about working-class realities. TV’s recent move toward wider inclusion has largely continued this custom, with family being the cornerstone of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat (about Asian Americans), the rebooted One Day at a Time (about Cuban Americans), Jane the Virgin (about Venezuelan Americans), Transparent (about a trans parent and her queer family), Speechless (about a teen with a disability), and Atypical (about a teen with autism). Pose, which centers on members of the New York City ballroom scene, isn’t a sitcom. But it’s more gooey and lighthearted than it could have been, given its milieu, and follows in the steps of those earlier shows by centering the importance of family.

Pose can call plenty of other programs its predecessors. The fierce rivalry between house mothers (as ball terminology calls them) Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) evokes the chic matriarchs of Dallas and Dynasty. There’s a strong resemblance to aspects of American Horror Story, which, like Pose, often unites feuding characters and invests heavily in the idea of queer kinships. (AHS creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk co-created Pose with Steven Canals.) And it’s not difficult to trace parallels to Friday Night Lights, which similarly followed a family in the spotlight whose leader had to serve as both caring parent and strategic coach and whose standing in the community was forever dependent on the weekly ups and downs of the games that gave their town a sense of purpose. (RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought a similar mix of competition-based drama and LGBTQ culture to the small screen, but the complicated relationship between the ballroom culture of Pose and the drag culture of the VH1 reality series deserves its own article.)

And yet I kept coming back to the Full House comparison, mostly because Pose decided to give its characters a giant group hug at the season’s conclusion. The happy ending wasn’t guaranteed. In fact, the writers seemed to spend the season loading bullets into Chekhov’s gun. The season began with Blanca’s HIV diagnosis and later revealed ball emcee and fashion designer Pray Tell (a standout Billy Porter) to be HIV positive as well. Other looming threats included the perils of the drug trade, homelessness, medically unsupervised silicone injections, and, from all sides, the threat of transphobic violence. Anyone who’s seen Paris Is Burning knows that few members of the ball scene in that era lived to a ripe, old age, particularly if they made their livings hustling. Series writer Janet Mock initially fueled speculation about tragedies to come when she was quoted by Murphy as saying, “You almost have a responsibility to crush your audience. To say, ‘You love them? Well, look what’s happened when you don’t get involved.’ ” But in more recent interviews, she sounds happy to have created a “fairy tale” instead. “We are choosing to show the grit but not go so dark,” she told Vulture, anticipating a queer audience of color responding: “This made me feel good, this made me hopeful.”

In this first season, at least, the writers never pulled the trigger. Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, Pose provided reassurance for its target demo. The show could be sorrowful, as when Pray Tell recalled all the men he’d known who’d died of AIDS, or infuriating, as when Blanca is repeatedly told she’s unwelcome at a gay bar—she’s too brown and too, well, trans—before being thrown onto the street. But the show was committed, however unsubtly, to finding its lost characters a happy home. The season opened with Blanca bullied into leaving Elektra’s House of Abundance and budding dancer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) kicked out of his home for being gay. Through strict rules, tough love, and home cooking, Blanca manages, over the course of the next seven episodes, to build a nurturing (not to mention fierce) household. The scenario that ends the season could be ripped out of any after-school special: a family headed by two parents—newly crowned Mother of the Year Blanca and a less caustic, more respectably employed Elektra—seated around the dinner table with their children. Among them are Papi, who traded a life dealing drugs for parental approval; Angel, who rejected her adulterer boyfriend; and Damon, who gave up sex, money, and glamour to stay in school. As queer scholar Jeanne Vaccaro half-joked recently to a friend of mine, Pose is “Paris Is Burning meets 7th Heaven.”

And why shouldn’t it be? The predominant media narrative about trans women of color focuses, probably necessarily, on the alarming rates of violence against them. In this environment, the first season of Pose offers a televisual safe space in a genre where so many communities have found a sense of belonging, understanding, and hope. Pose is more conventional than its subject matter might suggest, but that squareness is a feature, not a bug. A little chicken soup never hurt anyone.